A reflection on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent — November 28, 2021
You are busy, you are overworked, and you are exhausted. Advent is upon us and, while someone once told you something about the yoke being easy and the burden light, the added pressure of seeking a unique encounter with Christ feels more like another task to add to the list than an opportunity for rest and repose. Of course you have beautiful moments in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, memories that you will cherish forever, maybe even a prayerful consolation or two, but the endless string of work to be done can often obscure the happy times.
It turns out that this insight about the relative superiority of the time we spend over the tasks we accomplish has profound theological implications. In the very first story told in the book of Genesis, the creation of the world, God calls each element of his creation good, but he saves a unique distinction for his final creative act. The Sabbath, the seventh day, a period of time, alone among all of His creation, is blessed and made holy. We are accustomed to considering spaces, objects, and people holy, but here the holiness of time is emphasized. Later in scripture, the responsibility for maintaining the sanctity of time is passed on to humanity in the form of the third commandment, “Remember the sabbath day—keep it holy.”
The holiness of time in general and the Sabbath, in particular, is the primary focus of perhaps the most famous work of one of Judaism’s greatest modern theologians in Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s book The Sabbath. In it, Heschel points out that most of us are all too ready to exchange our time for space. We pour hours upon hours into accomplishing tasks or obtaining resources, and when we do take time to rest, it is often only in the interest of making our periods of work more efficient. Of course, in part, we are fulfilling another one of God’s commandments, to tend the earth, but we should always be on guard not to misunderstand the proper relationship between time and work. For the gentiles, Heschel says, our relationship with physical space offers the path to eternity. Spending time building massive structures, asserting military dominance, or making an enduring mark on creation ensures that one’s memory lives on. Scripture suggests that the entrance into eternity requires the reverse—instead of trading time for things, we make things in order to facilitate the proper use of time. While other cultures spend time building cathedrals out of space, Judaism builds a cathedral out of time—the Sabbath. Our relationship with space, work, and toil eventually fade into oblivion, but the rest and prayer of the seventh day build something that endures. This is not a uniquely Jewish phenomenon, of course. For instance, it is not only the physical church building or the objects within it that make our celebration of Mass holy; it is the moment of the Gospel’s proclamation or the Eucharist’s institution itself that sanctifies. In a manner analogous to the traditional Jewish observance of the Sabbath, we don’t have to do anything. We simply make ourselves present for the sacred moment.
The season of Advent, in particular, has the power to renew our relationship with sacred time. Advent involves a unique relationship between past, future, and present. During Advent, we reflect on the time of the Incarnation in our past, we prepare for Christ’s return in our future, and we hold both in tension during the present time in which Christ is both already and not yet in our midst. The temptation is to view reflection and preparation as simply more tasks to add to the pile, along with buying presents and cooking turkeys. Preparation for the Lord’s coming does not mean capitulating to the world’s understanding of time as a commodity to be traded to accomplish holy things instead of worldly ones. Preparation consists of recognizing the sacredness of time itself and seeing distinct moments during the season as opportunities to enter into time’s great cathedral. A new understanding of the particular sanctity of time can change how we look at a liturgical season that can too quickly devolve into a frenzied race to accomplish one task after another. Prayer, liturgy, and meditation on scripture are not tasks; they are moments spent in the presence of the divine, glimpses into eternity. We do not make time holy; it already is.
A new appreciation for the sacredness of time is not about feeling guilty for our busyness and the constant rush to take care of our responsibilities. It is about remembering why we are working so hard in the first place and learning to embrace the moments we do find. This Advent, remember that your time is sacred, do not be so quick to exchange it for things. Whether at Mass, during time spent with family, or amid a quiet moment of prayer, recognize the holiness of the time itself and enter into the cathedral to rest in the presence of our God and catch a glimpse of the eternity that awaits.
Fr. Alex Roche is the pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Laflin, Pennsylvania and serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Scranton. Ordained in 2012, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University. He went to college with a girl who went to high school with the niece of the guy who played Al in Quantum Leap.
You can listen to his podcast at www.wadicherith.com.