—by José Francisco Morales Torres 

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”  —Prophet Malachi (4:5–6)

“The very relationship with the other is the relationship with the future.” —Emmanuel Levinas, Jewish philosopher

Advent can be for us only when we make it about others.

There are several themes that undergird this holy season: In addition to hope, joy, peace, and love, there are the unpleasant (to say the least) themes of waiting, introspection and penance. —Introspection and penance requires that we patiently sojourn into the uncomfortable crevices of our hearts.

Advent calls us to “check” ourselves, to be honest with ourselves, to “see if there is any wicked way in me.” (Psalm 139:24a). Only in doing so are we led “in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:24b)  In braving the discipline of repentant introspection do we “prepare the way” for the Coming of the Eternal One, of the Holy Other, of the Christ. (Malachi 3:1; cf. Matthew 3:2)

Yet, this sojourning inwardly is, paradoxically, a call to sojourn outwardly to the “other,” to the “royal they.” You see, Advent reveals a deep truth about our humanity, namely, that we are, at our core, marked by our ability to receive, more so than by our ability to act. As much as I believe in and defend human agency (especially for the oppressed and marginalized whose agency is often denied), we are primordially defined by human receptivity.

We are first and foremost receptors for the Other/other. We are most human when we receive the other. Introspection, therefore, is not for us: it is for “them.” Advent is “for others, in spite of myself, from myself.” (Levinas) The soul searching of Advent readies our hearts to receive others, and in doing so, to receive the Holy Other. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35) This is why, according to the prophet Malachi, the coming of the promised one is marked by the hearts of parents and children turning to each other.  (Malachi 4:6)

To be clear, the receiving to which Advent calls us is not the“taking-by-force” that we are conditioned to do in our staunchly capitalistic, dog-eat-dog world. We don’t receive the other to commodify them, to use them, to exploit them, to make a profit from them. As Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno declares, “Human beings are ends, not means.” Levinas concurs, “If one could possess, grasp, and know the other, it would not be other.” To use others is to dehumanize; to truly receive others is to most human.

Advent call us to receive “the royal they” in their terms, to receive them as themselves and not to remold them into what suits us.  There’s a reason why Advent language is frequently apocalyptic and fiery. (Advent is often called “the great and terrible day of the Lord.” See Malachi 4:5) It is because moving from “taking-by-force” to authentically receiving others is tough work and requires radically uprooting and reorienting. It necessitates “turning around,” what in the Christian tradition is called repentance.

This Advent, as we wait to receive the One who is to come, we are called—as a way of prepare for this One—to receive the other, the “royal they.” Advent can be for us only when we make it about others. It opens up the future for us by opening us up to others.

And we can only journey inwardly into our hearts by journeying out towardly “them”—the oppressed them, the marginalized them, the victimized them.

Advent is a journey outward, a journey inward. So, journey on, my friends!

Prayer: Gracious God, open our hearts by thrusting us into the world to radically receive others.  For it is only in receiving them that we find ourselves. And receiving others, we prepare the way for the Other, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.