Doctoral Candidate, Systematic Theology, University of Notre Dame
Advent begins on December 1 this year, meaning that the close of one liturgical year and the beginning of the next occur when November gives way to December. This coincidental alignment of the Gregorian and liturgical calendars joins two dispositions of the Church in the passing of one night: November’s remembrance of the dead and Advent’s hopeful anticipation of the coming of the Lord.
November begins with the Solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of All Souls. Throughout the month’s thirty days, we take up special practices of prayer to recall the memory of our departed loved ones. We write their names in books of remembrance and we visit their graves. We cultivate our memory of the dead both in the interest of their eternal repose and to keep ourselves in relationship with them.
In the four weeks of Advent, we prepare our homes and our parishes for the birth of the Messiah. We cultivate our hearts and we hone our prayer in hope of making room for the Word of God to take flesh in our midst. We take up special practices to remind ourselves of our need for a Savior. We rehearse our trust that he will come.
It is right and proper that in both November and in Advent we give great attention to what we ourselves might do. We remember, we hope. We pray, we prepare. We mourn, we long. And perhaps it is even the case that in most years, the actions of November seem rather distinct from those of Advent, as one month delivers to us the memory of our loss while the subsequent season invites us to alight in hope. But the oddity of having to shift from one period to the next without even a day in between allows for a certain liminal awkwardness that, if we attend to it, might just open us to the deeper truth that this year’s coordinated calendars accentuate. The key to observing this truth rests in shifting our focus from our actions to God’s.
In November, how much do we really rely on our own memory to uphold the dead? In the end, we know that our memories fade and that our powers are limited (at best) to give back to those now gone what they have lost. When we pray for them, what are we really asking? When we remember them, what do we seek? Is it not true that undergirding all we do is a desperate plea for God to do something? When we pray for our dead, we ask that God remember them; we ask that the God who once called them into existence when they were not would now bring them from death into life (Romans 4:17). And when we ourselves remember them, are we not really asking that God will remember us with them, so that who we are and who will shall become will not be separated from who or how or where they themselves shall be? In November, we appeal to God’s memory. It is God’s memory that abides.
We trust in God’s memory at the end of the liturgical year because of God’s pledge of hope that marks the liturgical year’s beginning. The initial energy for the liturgical year is not found in our hope for God—our hope for the Messiah, our Savior—rather, what moves liturgical time is what God gives. Certainly, God gives all to us in the birth of Jesus, who lives through to the cross and is raised three days later from the grave. Yet Advent is not the season of this gift, but only the gift’s anticipation. The spirit of Advent comes from a God who desires, for our God is a desiring God. God desires to give himself to us; God desires us; God desires for us to desire him; God pledges himself to us so that we might wait in trust for what he will give. God desires us as his own beloved, and anyone who has ever loved someone knows that you lose yourself in hope before your beloved. So too with God, who goes in search of lost sheep (Lk 15:1-7), who sweeps her house for her lost coin (Lk 15:8-10), who stands waiting and in hope for his lost son (Lk 15:11-32). God comes for us, God searches for us, God waits for us.
I first came to glimpse something of this truth when some years ago I was introduced to Charles Péguy’s poem, The Gate of the Mystery of the Second Virtue (cited at then end of the first part of Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Theo-Drama V). Péguy writes of how our own hope comes from and depends upon God’s own hope.
“God has taken the first step. / We must trust God since he has put his trust in us. / We must place our hope in God since he has so placed his in us” (quoted in Balthasar, TD V, 1.B.c.).
It is strange to think of God as hoping; hope seems like weakness. And indeed, God becomes weak for us and even gives this weakness of hope to us as the strength of our desire. God places his hope in us so we might hope in him. When does God place this hope in us? When we sleep, when we exercise “the virtue of being able to do nothing.” That is to say, not during our periods of toil and achievement, not in our times of doing and acting; instead, God gives us what we need most but could never have expected otherwise when we lie in wait, asleep. This gentle imposition of hope is what Advent is all about: this hope is the pledge of future glory.
The night after I read Péguy’s poem for the first time, I began to pray a new prayer over my (then) only child as I put him down to sleep for the night. As I traced the sign of the cross on his forehead, I prayed these words for both of us: “Lord, renew your hope in us as we sleep.” In praying thus, I prayed two prayers simultaneously:
- First, I asked that God never cease to love us, never stop searching for us, never tire of hoping that we might embrace who he calls us to be.
- Second, I prayed that God would replenish again the hope he instills within us that we may also long for what he desires for us and never settle for anything less.
In other words, I prayed that God would hope in us and that God would place his hope within us. I still pray this prayer daily over my eldest, as well as his younger siblings.
In praying this prayer at night, I have learned something about the mystery of sleep. I’ve learned that the silence we enter in sleep relates to the silence we encounter when we call upon our beloved dead or visit their gravesites. Our powers leave us when we sleep and we become finally powerless in death. We are silent at the end of the day and at the life. November is dedicated to this end, the final sleep of death.
But Advent itself begins in sleep. There is no time before God makes the first move, before God desires us. It is God’s desire that makes us restless, and so we wait for God. When God comes, he comes as an infant in a manger—one who does not and who cannot speak. He is as powerless as one who sleeps. And when his time comes, he lays down his life upon the cross and enters into the final powerless of death: the most silent night of all. The one upon whom we wait in Advent comes to us in silence only to go from us into the silence of the grave, where the dead lie powerless. The mystery of the womb and the mystery of the tomb are united in him.
This year’s abutment of November and Advent may remind us that we live in the sacred space between memory and hope. We remember our dead and we hope for their eternal repose. We remember the gift of the manger and of the cross and we hope for the Lord to come in glory. Even more deeply, though, we dare to wager that God remembers us all in his memory and that God renews his hope in us as we sleep. The hope God gives to us at the beginning of the liturgical year grows into our hope for our brothers and sisters—and for ourselves with them—at the year’s end. And then we sleep and begin again, for every November begins in Advent.
Post-Script, from the introduction of Maxwell Johnson’s Between Memory and Hope:
The liturgical year is one important means by which we are allowed, invited, and privileged to celebrate the reality that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, mediated to us by Word, Sacrament, and community declares us, forms us, and call us to be Easter people, Lenten people, Christmas people, Advent people, and members of the communion of saints, who love in hope and expectation for the Day of His Coming. […] Advent is about our hope for fulfillment in Christ when ‘he will come to judge the living and the dead,’ a hope solidly grounded in the baptismal Spirit-gift who is the very downpayment and seal of our redemption. The feasts and commemorations of the saints provide us with models, concrete embodiments of God’s grace incarnate in human history, so that ‘moved by their witness and supported by their fellowship, we may run with perseverance the race that is set before us and with them receive the unfading crown of glory.’”