Here’s an example. How do most of us think about time? For people raised in Western societies, time isn’t a circle, but a straight line. It’s true that history has familiar patterns that come from human nature, and human nature changes very slowly, if at all, over the centuries. But this pattern is misleading. History never really repeats itself because each human person is unique and unrepeatable, each human person has a free will, and persons make history — not the other way around. The world had a beginning. It will also have an end. Time matters because it’s the limited space between those two bookends. Sooner or later, time will run out — for our individual lives, and for all creation. This understanding of time has deep biblical roots. For Christians, who for 2,000 years have built so much of the civilization on which modern life depends, the center and meaning of history is Jesus Christ. We say things like, 143 B.C. (the year 143 “before Christ”), or A.D. 2006 (“in the year of Our Lord,” 2006) precisely because all human existence hinges on the coming of God’s Son.
As Pope John Paul II reminded us during the Great Jubilee, Christ’s birth is the turning point in the whole story of creation. For Catholics, this is why alternate ways of referring to time — like C.E. (“Common Era”) and B.C.E. (“before the Common Era”) — can never be adequate. They subtly, and almost invisibly, change our understanding of the world. Human beings don’t give meaning to time. God created time. God gives it meaning. His story is the framework for our “history.” We can take part in the meaning of creation by living God’s word, but we don’t invent it by reaching a common consensus.
The Church embodies this truth in her worship. The secular year begins on Jan. 1, but for Catholics, the real new year begins this coming weekend with the First Sunday of Advent. The Church organizes the calendar each year into liturgical seasons — Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ordinary Time — to help us remember and more deeply experience the story of our salvation. Time matters. What we do with it matters eternally, and Advent is a time of preparation. It’s the season when we reflect on humanity’s creation, fall, God’s promise of a savior, and the fulfillment of the Old Testament with Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. It’s also a time to look ahead to Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time to judge each of us individually, and all of creation. If our lives need to change to get ready for the King’s arrival, Advent — not Jan. 1 — is the time to begin that work.
In the Gospel for next Sunday, Jesus urges us to “beware that your hearts do not become drowsy” from the pleasures and anxieties of daily life, and “to be vigilant at all times.” So much of modern life tries to place something else — noise, worries, distractions, ambition, appetites, consumer debris — besides Jesus Christ at the center of our thoughts.
But the Son of God is coming, and most of us will meet Him much sooner and much less predictably than we think. The purpose of Advent is to purify our hearts, refocus our lives and turn our eyes to the Christ Child coming at Christmas. That same Child will one day be the Lord coming in power at the end of history. Let’s make this Advent season a new beginning in our lives as disciples. Let’s make these next few weeks before Christmas the truest kind of pilgrimage to the Holy Land — the kind that readies each of our hearts to welcome an infant Redeemer.
The Declaration of Independence is also a Declaration of Dependence, for it affirms our dependence on the Creator and on Divine Providence. As the pendulum of the clock is free to swing on condition it be suspended from a fixed point, so I am free because I recognize dependence on the Supreme Lawgiver who is God.
--Fulton J. Sheen
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