I have to hurry up and write this because if I don’t get it done in time the season will be past and it will be too late to do all of those things that people do this time of year like decorating with trees and colored lights and shopping for gifts for those we love and those we don’t and going to parties to eat and drink too much before coming home and making a list of all the errands we still have to run and all of the responsibilities we still need to fulfill in order to make it that extra special, particularly meaningful, completely wonderful holiday season that I absolutely have to have, should have, and determinedly will have this year for me and for my family and friends.
Are you anxious yet? The season has just begun and already many people are on edge, some even dreading the holiday season. It doesn’t help that FM radio stations started playing Christmas carols three weeks before Thanksgiving and that many of our neighbors strung icicle lights on their homes the day after Halloween. Even the calendar is against us this year: by the time you get the turkey platter washed and put away, it’s time to unpack your wreath for the first Sunday of Advent.
Breathe deep. Now is the time to remember the purpose of the beautiful Advent season. It’s time to find the pause button in a fast-forward world. Advent is a season of truth that dispels anxiety and cultural deceptions. It is wisdom amid confusion. It is sanity when all about us is chaotic.
Advent teaches us to prepare in a very different way from the usual material rush, in a way that requires stillness instead of motion, and pondering instead of doing. There are no doorbuster coupons or 6 a.m. sales in Advent. The challenge of Advent is the Christian challenge to live in the world, but not be of it; to take a stand, and then kneel down in prayer.
Quietly yet firmly Advent defies the secular tide that has outwardly swamped the coming of Christmas. It is almost entirely an inward season that requires prayer and contemplation to realize its rewards. Advent heals and soothes and asks nothing else from us but a spiritual journey alongside the most joyful events of the Gospel and of all salvation history.
It is a penitential season, which explains the violet candles used in our Advent wreaths and vestments at Mass. In its beginning, Advent was marked by a 40-day fast, commencing after the feast of St. Martin’s in November, to prepare one’s soul for the coming of Christ. We’re not meant to celebrate Christmas during Advent. Let me say that again: We are not meant to celebrate Christmas during Advent. We are meant to examine our hearts and reflect on the way we live our lives, so that we can be ready for Christ’s coming into them.
One of the most beautiful aspects of Advent is its attitude of patience. In contradiction to the rest of society’s celebration of Christmas, Advent reins us in and feeds us slowly on the Word of God. In fact the hardest part about keeping the spirit of Advent is guarding against our own will to “get something done now.” The crush of secular culture can be so fierce this time of year, and it’s a virtue to be able to reject it and embrace the patient waiting of the season, all the while being led by the Scriptures which promise the coming of the King of Kings.
As we patiently wait for the fulfillment of God’s salvific promise, we are imitating the Israelites who waited through centuries for the arrival of the Messiah. We follow the example of Our Lady who, as a Jewish girl, spent her early life waiting with her people for the Redeemer. More intimately, we wait as the Blessed Mother did for the coming of her first-born Son, trusting that our patience and prayerfulness will be rewarded beyond our imagination.
Waiting, preparing — how do we make these notions palatable to ourselves and our families in such a culture as ours? Human nature being what it is, it’s hard to break away from to-do lists and calendars. Just make sure you’re using the right ones. The Church calendar is chock full of Advent-building feast days and traditions throughout the month of December. These individual celebrations act like spark plugs. They are the starting points for spiritual combustion, which produces the energy we need to be faithful all season long:
Feast of St. Nicholas, December 6: What better way to realign our understanding of the season than to contemplate the original Santa Claus? The real St. Nicholas was so much more than a jolly old man who gave out presents — he worked miracles and as a Bishop he gave his life to teaching and living the Gospels.
The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, December 8: A wonderful way to ponder the mysterious plan of God, this Holy Day of Obligation teaches us that the coming of Christ was prepared for in a singular and blessed manner. Mary’s conception in the womb of St. Anne was brought about without original sin or its stain, without any deprivation of sanctifying grace. Mary was preserved from these defects from the first moment of her existence. Thanks to this mystery, we can say “Hail Mary, full of grace.”
St. Juan Diego, December 9, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, December 12: Prepare to welcome the Christmas Infant by acknowledging the miracle of life itself. As the Protectress of the Unborn, Our Lady of Guadalupe intercedes to safeguard all human life from the moment of conception. The story of St. Juan’s faith in a time of violence and prejudice, and Our Lady’s miraculous gift of roses in winter as a sign of her love for us, is inspiring to people of all ages.
St. Lucy, December 13: Patron saint of the eyes, St. Lucy’s name means “light” illuminating the darkness, as well as the interior light of clear understanding. As we approach the shortest days of the year and darkness envelops our world, St. Lucy reminds us that the Light of the World is coming. Her martyrdom and heavenly reward mirror our desire for faithful patience during the Advent season.
Gaudete Sunday: Marking the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete (broadly translated as Rejoice) Sunday is the day we add the rose candle to the Advent wreath, signifying our anticipation of the joy that is ahead. In a season of prayer and penance, Gaudete Sunday is a glimpse of the Christmas celebration that awaits, giving us strength to continue our journey.
The O Antiphons, December 17 through 23: Late in Advent the final preparation for the coming of Christ is inspired by the great “O Antiphons.” These prayers are seven jewels of liturgical song, one for each day until Christmas Eve. They seem to sum up all our Advent longing for the Savior in poetic and ancient language that Catholics today may recognize as the musical verses of O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Based on scriptural texts, each one is a title for Christ, and each one refers to the coming of the Messiah: O Sapientia (Wisdom); O Adonai (Sacred Lord); O Radix Jesse (Flower of Jesse’s Stem); O Clavis David (Key of David); O Oriens (Radiant Dawn); O Rex Gentium (King of Nations); O Emmanuel (God with Us). The ancient O Antiphons add a spirit of eager expectation to our prayers throughout the final week before Christmas.
What is the reward of Advent? The sweetness of earning Christmas. Earning may be an unusual word to pair with Christmas, and it’s true that God’s gifts can not be earned because they are freely given. It is an entirely human need to earn. Investing ourselves in Advent heightens our understanding, our gratitude and our receptivity of the great gift of Christmas. By giving of ourselves during Advent, we increase our ability to enter into the mystery of God giving Himself to us. Ours is the promise of joy, made particularly piquant by a season spent in faithful expectation.
By keeping Advent we can pace ourselves, grow in faith, and build momentum to a spiritual and emotional apex by December 25. About the time when most people have grown tired and even cynical about the Christmas season, we are just approaching its glorious joy and beginning our celebration. Once again, Catholic tradition provides the antidote for what ails us in the secular world.
One of my favorite Christmas carols is O Holy Night, and the lyrical phrase, “A thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices…” At a time when the world is weary from sin and yearning for light in the darkness, Advent is more relevant than ever in teaching us how to prepare for such a gift as Jesus.