What is the meaning or purpose of Advent? Is Advent a preparation for Jesus’ future coming? In a way, it is. Descriptions of the Second Coming appear in the last Sundays that precede Advent as well as in the Gospel of this First Sunday of Advent. They are reminders that our small worlds will eventually fall apart? Is Advent looking toward Jesus’ second coming?
Yes, but not entirely. Most of the Advent readings not only focus on the past but also the future. Since the Scriptures were written in the past, when they look to the future, they are also looking at what is present to us.
Isaiah alerts us that one is coming. Two of the four Sundays of this year’s Advent season show us John the Baptist calling his listeners to repent before the coming of the powerful Messiah, whom John expected within his lifetime. As we read John’s words, we can recognize that they also apply to the present.
During the Advent season, as we consider the events of Jesus’ first coming, we come to deeper appreciation of the Incarnation in the present.
Today’s second reading, which Paul addressed to the Romans (Rm 13:11-14), around 56-58 AD, also apply to us “now”: “You know the time in which we are living. It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep, for our salvation is closer than when we first accepted the faith” (Rom 13: 11).
Paul acknowledges that the community to whom he is writing are not unbelievers but have already “accepted the faith.” Still, he calls them to wake from “sleeping.” We may well have accepted the faith for a longer period than the early Christians in Rome, but we may also need to be roused from sleep.
St. Thomas Aquinas thinks that Paul’s words are a call to each one of us to wake “from the sleep of guilt by doing penance… and from the sleep of negligence by taking care to act properly” (Commentary on Romans, 1063).
According to Paul: “Now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed” (Rom 13:11). In other words, salvation wasn’t finished when we first believed. Salvation is a process. Thomas Aquinas affirms:
We are ordered to salvation, first of all by faith, ‘He who believes and is baptized will be saved’ (Mk 16:16).’ But that faith should not remain dormant: A person gets closer and closer to salvation by good works and increased love: ‘Draw near to God and He will draw near to you’ (Jas 4:8)” (Commentary on Romans, 1064).
Thomas’ Commentary indicates that this same passage from Romans was already being used in Advent during the thirteenth century:
But, inasmuch as the Church reads these words during Advent, they seem to refer to the salvation which Christ worked during His first coming. Accordingly, we can understand the Apostle speaking to all believers since the beginning of the world. For as the time of Christ’s incarnation drew near and the predictions of the prophets grew in number, it could be said, ‘our salvation,’ namely Christ, is nearer than when we believed… (Commentary on Romans, 1065).
Paul declares: “The night is far spent; the day draws near” (Rom 13:12). Thomas understands “night” to be the time before Jesus:
The time before Christ’s incarnation is being compared to night, because it was not yet clear but wrapped in darkness, as the Second Letter of Peter states ‘You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place’ (2 Pet 1:19)… The time after Christ’s Incarnation is compared to day on account of the power of the spiritual sun in the world (Commentary on Romans, 1068).
Each one of us has moments when we also “wake up” from our own “nights” to Christ. Thomas calls these “times of mercy”: “This can also be taken to refer to the time of mercy, when one begins willing to depart from past sins. For at that time he is closer to his salvation than previously, when he had a dead faith (Commentary on Romans, 1065).
How can faith be dead? For Thomas, a “dead faith” is faith without charity, that is, without love of God or neighbor. Although a person may believe in the mysteries of Christ, faith is not alive without love.
The absence of Jesus is night and darkness while the presence of Jesus is day and light: “The night is passed, but the day is at hand. Let us cast off deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom 13:12).
In a way, the day and the light came when Jesus took our flesh but also when He first came into our lives. Yet, the struggle between day and night continues, as Thomas explains, “The entire time of the present life is compared to night on account of the darkness of ignorance with which the present life is encumbered” (Commentary on Romans, 1066).
Having accepted Jesus as the “day” and the “light” doesn’t mean that we will not revert to the “deeds of darkness,” as Thomas explains: “The state of guilt is compared to night on account of the darkness of guilt… as the psalm says: ‘They have neither knowledge nor understanding; they walk about in darkness’ (Ps 82:5).”
Yet we repeatedly experience the grace that brings us out of the darkness and into the light, as Thomas notes: “The state of grace is called day on account of the light of spiritual understanding which the just have… ‘light dawns for the righteous’ (Ps 97:11).
Paul states that “the day draws near.” Thomas explains how this day has come and yet continues to come: “The time of Christ’s grace, although it had already arrived as regards the passage of time, is nonetheless described as drawing near through faith and devotion ‘The Lord is near’ (Phil 4:5); ‘The Lord is near to all who call upon Him’ (Ps 145:18)” (Commentary on Romans, 1069).
“The Lord is near” at occasions of conversion, as Thomas notes: “It can also apply to those who repent of their sins, for such persons the day of grace is at hand” (Commentary on Romans, 1065).
For Paul, sinful works are the “works of darkness.” Thomas understands sin as an action against reason, which draws a person into darkness: “The works of sin are called the works of darkness…because they lack the light of reason…They are performed in the dark… and by them a person is brought to darkness” (Commentary on Romans, 1071).
Paul declares, “Put on the armor of light.” According to Thomas, “That [the armor of light] is the virtues, which are called armor because they protect us… They are perfected by the light of reason…they are tested by light. ‘He who does what is true comes to the light’ (Jn 3:2)… others are enlightened by virtuous acts ‘Let your light shine before men’ (Mt 5:16)” (Commentary on Romans, 1071).
Paul asserts: “Walk honestly as in the day.” Thomas compares the night and the day: “In the day everyone tries to present himself becomingly before others. But not so in the night, ‘Those who sleep, sleep at night, those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober’ (1 Thess 5:7)” (Commentary on Romans, 1073).
John’s Gospel states: “If anyone walks in the night he stumbles” (Jn 10:11). “Walking” for Thomas, is going forward, in Christ: “Because it is day, we should walk, advance from good to better, ‘Walk while you have the light’ (Jn 12:35)” (Commentary on Romans, 1073).
The abuse of alcohol is associated with night, as Thomas notes: “Excessive drinking places a man outside the bonds of reason, as Sirach says: ‘wine was created to make people glad not drunk’ (Sir 31:27)” (Commentary on Romans, 1075).
For Thomas, ‘putting on the armor of light’ means to put on Jesus Himself: “We should put on the armor of light, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ” in whom all the virtues were present most abundantly” (Commentary on Romans, 1072).
We put on Jesus Christ, first, by receiving the sacrament ‘All you who have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ’ (Gal 3:27). Secondly, by imitation: ‘Stripping yourselves of the old man with his deeds and putting on the new” (Col 3:9). For a person who imitates Christ is said to put on Christ, because just as a man is covered by a garment and is seen under its color, so in one who imitates Christ the works of Christ appear (Commentary on Romans, 1079)
Paul asserts: “Walk honestly as in the day.” Thomas reflects: “For the beauty of becoming conduct lies in the fact that man does not prefer the flesh to the spirit but the spirit to the flesh, ‘We are not debtors to the flesh that we should live according to the flesh’ (Rom 8:12)” (Commentary on Romans, 1080).
This does not mean that we do not take care of bodily needs, as Thomas explains: “He does not say ‘make no provisions for the flesh’ absolutely because everyone is bound to care of the body in order to sustain nature… but he adds ‘in its concupiscence’ so that we do not follow the disorderly desires of the flesh “Walk by the Spirit and do not gratify the desires of the flesh’ (Gal 5:16) (Commentary on Romans, 1080).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on Romans are taken from the translation begun by Fr. Fabian R. Larcher, O.P. and edited by J. Mortensen and E. Alarcón. The translation was published by the Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, Lander, Wyoming, in 2012, pages 361-367.