Black Friday has come and gone. We are immersed in the holiday season of parties, gifts and decorations. As we drive down many streets, we see signs of the celebration that we call Christmas on homes and lawns.

Dec. 2, however, marks the beginning of Advent. Advent is from the Latin word "adventus," meaning "coming," and is the translation of the Greek word "parousia" - often used when we speak of the second coming of Christ.

We will hear readings at Masses Dec. 1-2 that are meant to increase our awareness of the end times - then, in the Gospel for the fourth Sunday of Advent, Mary reminds us of the birth of Jesus.

Do we enter into Advent by reflecting on the second coming of Christ, or do we enter into the celebration of Christmas today because that is where we find society? Is there an opportunity to find ourselves in the midst of a joy-filled Advent season?

Some scholars might assist us as we reflect on the second coming of Christ: what may happen and how we should deal with this special season of Advent.

Theologian Karl Rahner suggests that we are already experiencing God's kingdom: that we live in God's kingdom, which is unfolding before us, but there is also more to come. The "not yet" part of God's kingdom will be unfolded at the end of time.

This "already/not yet" idea puts into play the possibility that we have already been saved - that Jesus Christ has saved us and we will all be welcomed home at the end of time.

Third-century theologian and scholar Origen affirmed the idea that all would be saved. In the last century, Cardinal Avery Dulles, in talking about hell, stated: "If we knew that everyone or nearly everyone is saved, we might become presumptuous."

"And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory:" Jesus has assured us He is with us even to the end of time. Jesus describes "people dying of fright" and the Son of Man appearing in glory - appearing, as He always does, to be with us at our most troubling times, our times of fear and pain.

How would our life change if we entered into and fully engaged this time in God's kingdom? How would our life change if we knew that Jesus would welcome all of us home? Would we want to spend our time not worrying about salvation and enjoying life to its fullest? And where do we find that awesome time when life seems wonderful and joy-filled?

When my youngest daughter, Kim, was preparing for confirmation, she served at Schenectady's City Mission, a refuge for the hungry and homeless, along with other young people in her confirmation class. When she returned, she told me about her experience.

She seemed filled with joy. I asked her if I might serve and have that experience. She said she would arrange it and go with me; so, on that Saturday, we entered the City Mission and soon found ourselves serving lunch to numerous guests.

I ladled out the soup and Kim handed out the sandwiches. After all were served, Kim asked me to prepare two more bowls of soup, and she put a sandwich on two more trays. I thought there were more folks coming. She picked up a bowl of soup and a sandwich, motioned for me to do the same and said, "Follow me."

Into the dining room we went. She sat at a table with some guests and motioned for me to sit at another table. I was nervous and uncomfortable and started eating in silence.

I heard Kim talking at the other table and asking folks how they were doing; they started to share their stories with her. I took the hint and did the same.

I realized after we left that the ministry was not just serving soup and sandwiches, but to sit at a table and share stories. I was filled with joy - a lasting joy. This experience happened 14 years ago and it is still fresh in my heart.

I have heard others relate similar stories about serving in hospitals, prisons, homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Think of a time when you reached out to the poor and homeless: How did you feel afterward? Were you not filled with joy?

Jesus seems to be cautioning us about being prepared. He has offered us His mission to bring joy. Isn't He suggesting that our hearts will not be troubled or drowsy if we follow His mission - and that, when we do, we will be filled with joy?

Why not approach the season of Advent with the idea of being filled with joy as we minister to the poor, with the realization of the second coming and the realization that we live in a broken society - a society that we enter into in this most unique season, when people appear to be finding joy by buying gifts and going to parties?

We might be able to offer them a different way to celebrate and prepare for the second coming of Jesus and the celebration of His birth. It may be possible to have a joy-filled Advent as we live in our society today and enter into the lives of the poor in worldly goods, as well as the lives of the poor in spirit.

(Deacon Berning is director of the Albany diocesan Office of Pastoral Planning and of Initial Formation for the Diaconate. The readings for the first Sunday of Advent are 1 Jer 33:14-16; Ps 25:4-5,8-9,10,14; 1 Thes 3:12-4:2; and Lk 21:25-28,34-36.)