In Journey of the Magi, T. S. Elliot presents the thoughts of those kings who, having found their way to Bethlehem and back, now wonder what it was they beheld there:
Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Today’s readings remind us that Advent involves an upending of expectations: the Birth we anticipate is one that takes place only through the Death of the “old dispensation.”
The prophet Zephaniah warns against a self-exaltation that refuses to draw near to God. The LORD does not exalt as we exalt: He desires to upend our hearts, changing us from “proud braggarts” to “a people humble and lowly,” a people near to the God who takes on humility and lowliness in the flesh.
The Psalmist sings: the LORD destroys evildoers and redeems the lives of his servants. Might we not see this double action as taking place within our own hearts? Death and birth are given together: death to our pride, to our disbelief, to our hesitancy; birth to new intimacy with the LORD, in the form of drawing near to those with whom the LORD himself is near—the poor and brokenhearted.
Jesus announces that it is not too late to have our hearts changed, even when, like the disobedient son, we have said (again and again): “I will not.” The condition for new life is not an unimpeachable past. Those entering the Kingdom are tax collectors, prostitutes, and disobedient sons. Perhaps we too might come to be counted among that happy number. But only if, like Elliot’s Magi, we no longer clutch after insufficient idols. So we await the advent of His Birth, and thereby we await the advent of our Death; but in this Death, a change of mind—of heart—that opens to new Life.
Rocco and Gloria Barbieri Fellow
Augustine and Culture Seminar Program
Advent comes from the Latin word, adventus – an arrival or a coming. In the context of the season, Advent means that the Lord is coming. Read more of the Advent introduction...
First Week of Advent
Second Week of Advent
Third Week of Advent
Fourth Week of Advent