Editor’s Note: Dr. Joseph Capizzi, Ordinary Professor of Moral Theology at the Catholic University of America, offered the following remarks regarding Advent at Christmas Open House hosted by at the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) on December 12.
For Christians, Advent is the season of looking forward, of expectation. The word “advent” comes to us from the Latin for “arrival,” and its meaning is plain: we look forward both to the arrival of the messiah promised in scripture and given to us in the nativity, and to His glorious return. But in this time of Advent, looking forward is also – as always – implicated with looking backwards: we are looking towards the fulfillment of a promise made in the deep past by God to Israel. Even Christmastime’s close secular holiday, New Year’s Day, acknowledges the connection of looking forward and backward with its ritual combination of “resolutions”, or promises to ourselves to reform or repair deficiencies in our lives from the prior year: we make forward looking promises to be different this year, this time. A promise binds the future to the past.
The relation of the future to the past came up all year long in our nation, and was played out on social media in mostly divisive and unspoken ways. We saw ascending political careers return to earth because of decades old accusations; we saw the elite of our entertainment culture spoil before our eyes, similar accusations turned shimmering “stars” to mere space junk, worn, fat, old bits of things we thought had value but were now proven useless; we saw statues, high school and college buildings, academic chairs and fellowships torn down or renamed because of their namesakes’ centuries old complicity with evils impassioning us more than before.
All these things remind us of something we as people of faith should know well: the past, all the past, including our past as individuals and our past as citizens of the United States, as Christians, as faithful people, is always fragile. As Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal argues, the past is not stable and closed, but in fact, an open event subject to future events. Its meaning unfolds over time and transforms in response to new developments. Whatever we do, then, all our accomplishments, are at the mercy of future action. Any future events can transform and even evacuate the meaning of the past.
Among the most obvious ways future events can transform the past is seen in war, where loss may mean the annihilation of the symbols, institutions, language, and all the other markers of a past civilization. As Walter Benjamin wrote, “Even the dead will not be saved from the enemy if he wins.” ISIS reminded the world of Benjamin’s insight in 2014 and 2015 when they ravaged monuments and sites throughout Iraq and Syria. The brunt of this destruction was borne by Shiite Muslims, but ISIS proved equal-opportunity its destruction, desecrating and destroying sites and churches meaningful to Sufis, Jews, and Christians.
Less comprehensively, and with less brutality if not less grace, in our nation current events corroborate the fragility of the past. We have seen how respected leaders and heroes have been transformed by contemporary reevaluations of their actions, how new or perhaps reclaimed postures towards human imperfection have led not to an admission of our own sinfulness, but to a new institutional puritanism of impressive destructive power: mere accusation of past impropriety today will fell both statues and careers.
But the connection of past to future is not only destructive, and not only negative. Halbertal makes the point that this fragility of the past can be a source of hope: “Constructing a teleological process backward is a way of transforming a failure into a constructive moment in someone’s life,” he writes. For Christians, moral failure is not the final word. We understand sin; unlike many of our peers, we are not surprised when men and women fail, we do not swoon at transgression. Instead, we turn to confession and repentance as ways of transforming moral failure from barren to fertile ground upon which we can renew our lives. Repentance is not just forward looking, but a way of “undoing the past,” or unbinding us from the failure and renaming it as the moment eyes were opened, illumination occurred.
But the most transformative moment in history, of course, is that moment towards which Advent points, that moment when God entered time. That day, as Augustine put it, “from which each other day receives additional light which symbolizes the work of Christ by whom our inner man is renewed day by day.” So, again, let’s listen to Augustine:
Rightly, then, are we stirred by the voice of the Psalmist as by the sound of a heavenly trumpet, when we hear: ‘Sing ye to the Lord a new canticle: sing to the Lord all the earth. Sing ye to the Lord and bless His name.’ Let us recognize, then, and proclaim the ‘Day born of the Day’ who became incarnate on this day. The Day is the Son born of the Father, the Eternal Day, God of God, Light of Light; He is our Salvation, of whom the Psalmist says elsewhere: ‘May God have mercy on us, and bless us: may He cause the light of his countenance to shine upon us … That we may know thy way upon earth: thy salvation in all nations.’
 Moshe Halbertal, On Sacrifice92-96.
 Halbertal, 97.
 Habertal, 95.