December 5, 2020

The Anguished Seriousness of Advent

Monday Merton Musings, November 28, 2011
The Anguished Seriousness of Advent

Today, we hear some of Thomas Merton’s thoughts on the Advent season.

The certainty of Christian hope lies beyond passion and beyond knowledge. Therefore we must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance. Therefore, too, we must remember that Christian optimism is not a perpetual sense of euphoria, an indefectible comfort in whose presence neither anguish nor tragedy can possibly exist. We must not strive to maintain a climate of optimism by the mere suppression of tragic realities. Christian optimism lies in a hope of victory that transcends all tragedy: a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen.

It is important to remember the deep, in some ways anguished seriousness of Advent, when the mendacious celebrations of our marketing culture so easily harmonize with our tendency to regard Christmas, consciously or otherwise, as a return to our own innocence and our own infancy. Advent should remind us that the “King Who is to Come” is more than a charming infant smiling (or if you prefer a dolorous spirituality, weeping) in the straw. There is certainly nothing wrong with the traditional family joys of Christmas, nor need we be ashamed to find ourselves still able to anticipate them without too much ambivalence. After all, that in itself is no mean feat.

But the Church in preparing us for the birth of a “great prophet,” a Savior and a King of Peace, has more in mind than seasonal cheer. The Advent mystery focuses the light of faith upon the very meaning of life, of history, of man, of the world and of our own being. In Advent we celebrate the coming and indeed the presence of Christ in our world. We witness to His presence even in the midst of all its inscrutable problems and tragedies. Our Advent faith is not an escape from the world to a misty realm of slogans and comforts which declare our problems to be unreal, our tragedies inexistent.

from Seasons of Celebration: Meditations on the Cycle of Liturgical Feasts
by Thomas Merton


  1. This is beautiful and so insightful. Funny, I remember my Mom really being into Merton but I was told in my Fundamental/Evangelical circles that he was dangerous so I never read him.

  2. I love how the Advent lectionary texts, far from being a naive escape from reality, force us to face the immense human suffering of the world… as well as our complete inability to save ourselves. This is some heavy, heavy stuff… quite a contrast to the happy slogans blaring around us. And yet at the same time, I love how Merton doesn’t condemn the simple, childlike joys of Christmas.

    “Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.” (Psalm 80:3)

    Peace, Brian

  3. The note that struck me was the intention of Advent–to prepare us. In our busyness, we tend to just let things happen. Intention and preparation are sorely needed. We need to cultivate this focus on our Hope and “the light of faith” which “gives us the very meaning of life…”

    We remember that Christ came to give us light so that we should be his light in this world. Most of our attention at this Season is focused inside the box, inside the four walls of our church and our home. We rejoice in sharing Christmas through our church celebrations and presents; through worship and family gatherings.

    A much needed focus is also given to charitable works, ministering to those in need. But what would this Christmas look like if every follower of Jesus Christ prepared his heart to share this Story with one other person who is outside the box?

  4. In Advent we celebrate the coming and indeed the presence of Christ in our world. We witness to His presence even in the midst of all its inscrutable problems and tragedies.

    That says it all. I really appreciated the balance and insight of this piece. It helps bring out the full meaning of “God with us.”

  5. As I presently watch a dear friend and saint slowly waste away from cancer and consider that I will likely perform her funeral before the final Sunday of Advent, these words are particularly timely and poignant. Thank you.