There are points in the liturgy when time itself seems suspended, when all of eternity gets captured in a single breathless moment. "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again," we proclaim every Sunday. When we utter these words, we pull the past and the future into the present, where for one impossible instant they all exist together, coterminously.
This seems to be a basic liturgical pattern: recalling a past event, pointing to a future reality, and reflecting on what they mean for us today. We do this when we celebrate Communion. Paul tells us that "as often" as we eat the bread and drink the cup, we "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor. 11:26). In the Eucharist, all of salvation history, ancient time and awaited time, come together in the present moment. The ordinary acts of eating and drinking take on eternal significance. As we remember what God has done, we hope for what He will do, and we take joy in what He is doing now.
This, then, is the essence of liturgy: we remember, we hope, we rejoice.
Every Sunday, I find myself deeply moved by the liturgy. A friend recently asked me why this is. Liturgy, after all, is a man-made thing. Part of the answer lies in rehearsing this pattern of memory-hope-joy again and again. My soul responds to it, like returning to a favorite song. For me, the liturgy is a spiritual tool. It helps me to "hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering," knowing that "he who promised is faithful" (Heb. 10:23).
Perhaps more than any other season of the Church Calendar, Advent is saturated with this sense of eternity. We look ahead to Christ's second coming, commemorate His first, and ask God to reveal himself to us now in a fresh way.
In the Anglican tradition, there is a "collect" — a concise liturgical prayer — for each week of Advent. The collects are centuries old, and many people find them stilted and dull, preferring the more modern, poetic prayers in the lectionary. The lectionary prayers are beautiful in their own right, but the collects are true treasures. By tradition, the collect for the First Sunday of Advent was repeated every day of the season:
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness,
And put on the armor of light,
Now in the time of this mortal life
In which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility;
That in the last day, when he shall come again
In his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead,
We may rise to the life immortal....
In this prayer, we retrace the familiar pattern. The ancient and future overlap in the now. Christ once came, He shall come again, now let us walk in the light.
Remember. Hope. Rejoice!
There is a startling presentness to the liturgy of Advent. "Awaken!" a Catholic prayer for Advent commands. "Remember that God comes! Not yesterday, not tomorrow, but today, now!" In "The Divine Dawning," Karl Rahner perfectly captures this sense of the eternal-now in Advent:
Behold, you come. And your coming is neither past nor future, but the present, which has only to reach its fulfillment. Now it is still the one single hour of your Advent, at the end of which we too shall have found out that you have really come.
Rahner offers this prayer: "O God who is to come, grant me the grace to live now, in the hour of your Advent, in such a way that I may merit to live in you forever, in the blissful hour of your eternity."