Some years ago, I was sitting on some cliffs with some friends, on the south coast of Ireland. We were saying the Rosary, but then one of my friends jumped up and started shouting and pointing. A huge fin whale had just broken the surface of the water. It went back down again quickly, and we started praying again that this incredible beast from the deeps would show itself again. None of us had ever seen a whale in the wild. So our eyes were wide open and we were scanning every inch of the sea. And then, after five long minutes, it came back, and we cheered like crazy. Between the two sightings of the whale, we were standing on the cliff, alert, watchful, bursting with hope and excitement and expectation.
The whole Christian life is like that in-between period. We find ourselves between the two ‘advents’ of Christ. We have seen Christ: God the Son tore the heavens open and came down (Isaiah 64:1), and we have seen him face to face. We have seen God with us in the child born to Mary, we have seen his saving love for us in his teaching, his miracles, his kindness, and above all on the Cross. And because of all this, we Christians can hardly wait to see Christ again. We’re standing on the cliff’s edge, alert, watchful, desperate to see the face of God revealed to us again.
Or at least, we ought to be. We should be wide awake, but sometimes we get drowsy, and our heads drop, and our eyes close. We don’t know when the Lord is coming, and, as Jesus says in the Gospel, the temptation is great to take a little nap.
This is why every year the Church invites us to turn back the clock, and to return, in spirit, to the period just before the first coming of Christ. For four weeks we return to the period before we humans knew Christ, when we still felt distant from God. We return to the darkness and silence before we heard the warmth of his voice among us. And during these weeks we read and sing the ancient prophecies that spoke of the coming Messiah: ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel… O come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heavenly home… Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel’.
All of this is meant to sharpen our hope, to raise our expectations, to have us alert and ready for the coming of Christ at Christmas. Remember that the ones who first encountered Christ were not the great political and religious leaders in Jerusalem, it was simply the shepherds who were awake, in the dark, silent night, watching their flocks.
Our task in the weeks before Christmas is to let our hearts follow the example of these simple shepherds. We’ll inevitably be surrounded by pre-Christmas shopping, boozing and feasting, all of which tend to make us forget to keep watching for the presence of Christ. One simple practice can help remedy this: each night as we approach Christmas, spend five minutes with all the lights in your house turned out, perhaps with a lit candle, sitting in that silent night, allowing your heart to desire the Lord. Then whisper those ancient words: ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’.