Advent. It means “coming.” For Christians, Advent is the start of a new liturgical year and a time to prepare our hearts for Christmas, for God’s coming in the flesh. Employing the Bible’s favorite analogy, Advent is a time set aside for the bride (the Church) to prepare herself for the coming of the bridegroom (Christ).
Did it ever dawn on you that the entire biblical narrative is a story about marriage? Understanding this point shines a bright light on Advent, so let’s take a look.
The Bible begins in Genesis with our creation as male and female and the call of the two to become “one flesh.” Throughout the Old Testament, God speaks of his love for his people as the love of a husband for his bride. In the New Testament, the love of the eternal bridegroom is literally embodied in the Christmas story. Skip to the end of the Bible and the Book of Revelation describes heaven as the eternal marriage of Christ and the Church.
Furthermore, did it ever dawn on you that the first human words spoken in the Bible are words of the bridegroom’s desire for his bride: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” (Gen. 2:23)? And guess what the final human words spoken in the Bible are — words of the bride’s desire for the coming (advent) of her bridegroom: “The Spirit and the bride say ‘Come!’ . . . Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:17, 20).
The whole story of our salvation, the whole of biblical revelation, is framed by the desire of the bridegroom for union with the bride, and by the desire of the bride for union with the bridegroom. And there’s our Advent theme: Advent is a time set aside for the bride (the Church) to prepare herself for the coming of the bridegroom (Christ). In other words, Advent is a time of desire. It’s a time for each of us to learn how to direct our hunger and thirst for infinite love and fulfillment (eros) toward the One who alone can fulfill it.
Saint Catherine of Siena says that because the soul in some way “has infinite being, it desires infinitely and will never be satisfied until it is joined with the infinite.” Having the courage to live within this “infinite desire” is the essence of the Christian life.
Christianity is not primarily a religion of law, as it’s so frequently considered. It’s first and foremost a religion of longing. The role “law” plays is simply that of guiding our longing in the right direction. The “whole life of the good Christian is a holy longing,” wrote Saint Augustine. “That is our life, to be trained by longing,” he insisted.
In short, to be “trained by longing” means to learn how to take our longing for infinity to infinity, and settle for nothing less. If sin means to “miss the mark,” then that’s precisely what we’re doing when we aim our desire for infinite bliss at finite delights. If the ache inside remains even after we’ve gorged ourselves on the pleasures of this world, perhaps that indicates that we’re made for another world.
“To acknowledge that one is made for the infinite,” said Pope Benedict XVI, “means journeying along a path of purification from . . . the false promises of the infinite that seduce and enslave man.” It’s this call to purification of desire that the world mistakes for the negation and repression of desire. But this purification is not “about suffocating the longing that dwells in the heart of man,” insisted Pope Benedict, “but about freeing it, so that it can reach its true height.” And that “true height” is nothing short of infinite ecstasy in what Scripture describes as the “marriage of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:7).
This is the Christmas story in a nutshell: The Infinite One has wed himself to our finite humanity. This is what we’re preparing ourselves for during Advent. And this is why Advent is a time of desire: The bride is longing to be filled with the eternal life of her bridegroom. And so she cries in union with the Spirit of God: “O come, O come, Emmanuel!”
— Christopher West is an educator, best-selling author, cultural commentator, and popular theologian who specializes in making the dense scholarship of the late Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body accessible to a wide audience. He is the founder of the new initiative The Cor Project.