Advent. It’s a new church year, a new liturgical season, and the beginning of the month-long countdown until Christmas.
Few people realize that with the beginning of Advent the church celebrates a new year, which includes a switch over to a new synoptic Gospel (this year it’s Matthew) that will guide the selections throughout the liturgical year. While Christmas far-too-often overshadows the Season of Advent in the social and even ecclesial imagination, those who do recognize the independence and importance of the Season of Advent nevertheless do not usually pay much attention to the word we so closely associate with this time of year: Advent.
I don’t think that the word Advent, at least as it is understood classically, is the best word for this season. And our readings this Sunday make that abundantly clear!
The origin of Advent comes from the Latin word adventus, which literally means “arrival” or “coming.” And so, in one sense, it’s a logical term to describe the liturgical season in terms of the coming or arrival of Christ. This is, I presume, how it was adopted and intended. But the way in which adventus was used in the past should give us some pause and raise some questions about what it is we celebrate and why.
The word adventus was used in the Roman Empire when the emperor was officially welcomed into the city, usually after a military conquest or victory (typically when the Emperor would return to Rome after some military success). The emperor’s staff would send an envoy in advance and let the city, village, or town know that the victorious ruler was coming or would arrive soon — the “head’s up” was used to signal the loyal citizens to ready the welcome of the emperor, roll out the proverbial red carpet, and greet the leader appropriately with ceremony and pomp. They knew he was coming and they, we can presume, knew what to expect.
This arrival, this Advent, has classically meant two things in this original sense: (a) There was a celebratory, powerful, triumphant and, at times, violent dimension to the term Adventus, centered as it was on the military actions and royal reception of the Roman Emperor; and, (b) The use of the term Adventus always bore a sense of anticipation, expectation, and foresight – those in the city knew the emperor was coming – otherwise, they would not be able to roll out the “red carpet” and line the streets in a formal celebration.
While this might not seem like a big deal, I actually think that the term Advent does not serve us well when we begin to reflect on the profound truth of the type of coming or arrival we mark with this liturgical season.
It is really a historical and theological irony that the word “Advent” has come to describe the time that is dedicated for us to “prepare the way of the Lord” and ready ourselves for Christmas.
One the one hand: Many people were indeed expecting a messianic figure not unlike an emperor to come from God. There was a sense in which a military and political leader was to arise from the Jewish people. But what the world got was a tiny, totally vulnerable baby. The baby would grow up, not to be a powerful political leader, but – in many ways – a simple man who had no “place to lay his head” and was constantly on the move. He and his followers were poor, itinerant, and the closest thing you could have to the opposite of military and political might. There was no one to “roll out the red carpet” for the coming of the Christ. There wasn’t even, as we are so familiar with recounting this time of year, “room at the Inn.”
On the other hand: There was utter surprise and confusion, which was hardly the well-planned and advanced notion of “Advent” that Adventus originally meant. While now we can look back at the Prophet Isaiah, for example, and understand that there were in fact sorts of “forerunners” to the Coming of Christ, the real truth was that few actually understood what Jesus was all about. Even his family and followers were confused and mislead – they were at times indignant, embarrassed, uncertain, doubtful, betraying, and abandoning… It’s very difficult to imagine a “true Adventus” in which the citizens of Rome did not fulfill the civic expectation to celebrate the return of their victorious leader.
What God had in store was something that nobody could really anticipate, nobody could be completely ready or plan for this in-coming of Christ, therefore there really could – in the most literal sense – not be a true Adventus, a true “Advent.” It should be obvious how “Advent” as a word could be seen as problematic, even if we don’t consciously associate the word with the politics and violence it originally meant.
I’m not saying we should “do away” with the word “Advent” (plus, I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon), but I do think it might serve us well to think about the word, to think about the season, and to think about what it is we’re really supposed to celebrate during this time of year.
What we do celebrate is a coming, an arrival. But what kind?
I believe the word “invention” makes more sense. The word, “invention” actually makes more sense in terms of the Christmas event — not because it is “made up” as in “that story is quite an invention,” but in the literal origin of the word “invention” itself.
It has the same root as the word adventus in Latin (venire), but unlike adventus,the word inventus means “found” or “discovered.” The root of invention has to do with “coming upon” rather than fabricating. This is true with inventors too, think of the movie Back to the Future when Doc Brown slips and hits his head on the toilet and has that “a ha” moment… the Invention of the time machine is a spark of insight seemingly from nowhere.
Christ entered our world seemingly from a place of nowhere, certainly in a surprise unlike that which the people might ordinarily expect. It’s like a golf ball hit toward your head and somebody shouting “IN COMING!” It’s a surprise that shocks us into reality, a mystery out of the blue. The word invention taken apart, can also be understood as in-coming (or in the French, á venire). Interestingly enough, the in-coming, the á-venir in French, actually means future, which is precisely a description of the mystery of God that we presently await during the Season of Advent.
Our readings this Sunday on the First Week of Advent also support our thinking about this season less like an adventus and more in terms of an inventus or á-venir.
Our First Reading from the book of the Prophet Isaiah (2:1-5), taken from the beginning of the text, bears a lot of the meaning latent in understanding what the Season of Advent is all about in terms of inventus.
In days to come,
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest mountain
and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it;
many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may instruct us in his ways,
and we may walk in his paths.”
But what is most interesting here is that this anticipation, this awareness of what is to come is not the adventus of a Roman Emperor or powerful figure. It is not the victorious coming of a violent God who has triumphed in the way human beings imagine. It is the coming or arrival of the end of such a reality.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
one nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again.
This is hardly reflective of the original meaning of adventus. No violence, no weapons, no military victory. Instead, we cannot imagine or conceptualize of what God has in store for us with the in-coming, the invention of Christ into our lives!
Likewise, this Sunday’s Gospel (Mt 24:37-44) unsettles the Roman meaning of adventus in yet another key way. Jesus warns us in the Gospel according to Matthew:
Therefore, stay awake!
For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
We do not know when the Lord will come. There is no red carpet, there is no planning, there is no trumpet blast alerting us to the arrival or coming of the Lord. In fact, the opposite is the case. People will simply be doing their normal, everyday activities:
In those days before the flood,
they were eating and drinking,
marrying and giving in marriage,
up to the day that Noah entered the ark.
Like the flood, the invention, the in-coming of Christ will be a surprise.
Some can and do read this passage with fright, but it seems rather hopeful and comforting if we listen carefully to the Gospel. We should not fear, but live our everyday lives according to the model Christ has laid out for us. Then we need not worry.
Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation this week, Evangelii Gaudium, lays out a beautiful and challenging roadmap to live the Gospel today such that we can be read for the invention, the in-coming of Christ. If we just do what we are called to do in light of our baptism, we will have no fear. Those, meanwhile, who are waiting for an adventus, with triumph, grandeur, violence, and rapture, well… they will be disappointed. They’ve been missing what the season of Advent and the celebration of the Incarnation at Christmas is all about.
It is with great hope that we pause to consider what this season is all about. On the one hand we ready ourselves to celebrate what God has done, yet on the other hand we continue to await the future, the in-coming, the á venir, the in-vention of Christ in our lives!