Advent: New Beginnings


Reflection by Jem Sullivan

Our shared experience of the pandemic of 2020 will not be forgotten easily. Despite remarkable human advances in medicine and technology, the world was caught off guard by the sudden, rapid spread of a novel and lethal virus.

“Could this really be happening?” was the question, spoken or unspoken, in minds and hearts as COVID-19 brought daily life to a jarring halt. In its trail, the virus leaves unprecedented fear, uncertainty, hardship, suffering and death.

And as this unforgettable year draws to a close, we hope cautiously for a return to “normal” even as our sense of what makes for normal daily life evolves from moment to moment. Our common longing to return to normal life grows stronger while the economic, health and social impacts of the pandemic continue to be felt everywhere. Would that the world be made anew!

On this First Sunday of Advent, the church invites us to make a new spiritual beginning in a new liturgical year. In the first reading, Isaiah entreats God to, “return for the sake of your servants.” On behalf of Israel, the prophet acknowledges that the people have fallen short of their exalted vocation to live in covenant relationship with God. Their blind indifference to God is part of the sinful human condition.

Yet the prophet is filled with hope as he prays, “yet, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: We are all the work of your hands.”

Time and time again, the word of God reminds us that the faithfulness of God knows no limits. God remains faithful to us despite our small and big infidelities. St. Paul comforts the Corinthian Christians with this liberating truth when he writes, “God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

One of the many ways we can remain faithful to God is by being spiritually alert. When we persevere in prayer and in good works, we remain alert to the love and active presence of God in our lives and become more aware of the needs of our neighbors. Faithfulness to God means that I remain watchful of habits of thinking and patterns of acting that are contrary to love.

In the Gospel, Jesus urges his disciples in clear, stark words, “Be watchful! Be alert!” As we leave behind one liturgical year and enter into the Advent season, Jesus, who comes as light into this world’s darkness, walks with us on our spiritual journey to Christmas. In a spirit of interior alertness, I hear Jesus’ invitation to remember with humble gratitude the many ways in which God is at work in my life and in the world, especially in these challenging times.

We cannot leave behind the anxieties, fears and turmoil of the past year. But as a new liturgical year begins this Advent the word of God empowers us anew with divine grace that opens our hearts and minds to the renewing power of the Holy Spirit as we pray in Advent hope, “speak to me, Lord.”

Reflection: Name one concrete spiritual practice you will grow in this Advent.

Jem Sullivan is a professor at The Catholic University of America.