I once read a rather harrowing statement:
“What really torments us today, what bothers us...is the inefficacy of Christianity: after two thousand years of Christian history, we can see nothing that might be a new reality in the world; rather, we find it sunk in the same old horrors, the same despair, and the same hopes as ever. And in our own lives, too, we inevitably experience time and again how Christian reality is powerless against all the other forces that influence us and make demands on us.” - J. Ratzinger
I’d say that for the most part, we don’t pay much heed to thoughts or questions like this one, but in the season of Advent, something of it might wiggle its way into our consciousness.
What are we anticipating at Christmas? What are we celebrating, actually?
At the forefront of most of our minds is the historical coming of Christ around about 4AD, born of a virgin in a cave near Bethlehem, and all of the other nostalgic memories that come with this. Ratzinger’s observation hangs as a dark cloud over this historical fact of His coming. The “Savior of the World” has come, but what, concretely and in terms of salvation, has come in His wake?
Advent also causes us to consider Christ’s second coming - a time to prepare for judgment. This fact might come equipped with its own sense of foreboding. In fact, our lack of hope in God tends to cause us to take matters in our own hands, to pursue creating our own heaven on earth that we have made with our own hands and fashioned according to our own ideals. These attempts to control the future are accompanied by equal amounts of fear (of the whole thing falling apart) and disappointment (because the ideal is never actually attainable). Much of the wreckage we find in history, those “same old horrors,” is the result of many such attempts.
Perhaps here, considering the past and the future comings of Christ, we are forced to confront our disappointment, on the one hand, and our fear, on the other. So, what are we left with?
The fact that, because God completely respects our freedom, it is always Advent.
“We shall begin to realize that the borderline between ‘before Christ’ and ‘after Christ’ does not run through historical time, in an outward sense, and cannot be drawn on any map [i.e. these people are “saved” and those in that country are not]; it runs through our own hearts. Insofar as we are living on a basis of selfishness, of egoism, then even today we are ‘before Christ.’ But in this time of Advent, let us ask the Lord to grant that we may live less and less ‘before Christ,’ and certainly not ‘after Christ,’ but truly with Christ and in Christ.” -J. Ratzinger
In short, we are left with a profound realization that we, right now and very personally, need Christ to come and to be present to us with the same impact that his presence had on the simple shepherds and the Magi, and with the look of the merciful Father who wants us with Him more than we often want it ourselves. We are left with an opportunity to utter a prayer that God would come to me now and that he would dwell in me and break through my own boundary lines.