I was in our local Catholic bookstore the other day, stocking up on Advent candles. Christmas music was blaring throughout the store and decorations were everywhere. Having been a Catholic almost since birth, wandering through a Catholic bookstore evokes the pleasantest of memories and feelings. It’s comfortable, this notion of Christmas – a time of warmth and security.
Except, it’s easy to forget that the first Christmas wasn’t about any of those things, and although it’s lovely to experience those feelings in the context of our Advent preparations, the days before Christmas are about so much more. It’s rarely acknowledged outside of the walls of the church, but the liturgical focus of the first half of Advent is not on preparing to celebrate the baby in the manger. The first half of Advent is focused on preparing for the coming of Christ at the end of time, a reality reflected in the lectionary readings.
It is so easy to get lulled into the comfort of Christmas; so easy to get lost in an idyllic image of a mother and child. We forget about the cold. We forget about the exhaustion of having a newborn. We forget about how dirty the stable must have been. But most importantly, we forget about how radical an event the first Christmas was. The God of all the universe became a tiny infant. We know this, and yet we don’t let it fully seep in. It is far too easy to get swept away by Christmas carols, wrapping paper, and gatherings with friends.
And so, the Church blesses us with this first half of Advent. During the second half of Advent, we are called to get wrapped up in the beauty of the Christmas story. Yes, the first Christmas must have been terribly uncomfortable for the Holy Family – but what birth isn’t? In light of a romance, even the most inconvenient details take on beauty, and the love story between God and his people is no exception.
But in the first two weeks of Advent, we are faced with the reality that the story is still being written. Christ was born two thousand years ago, but the Incarnation wasn’t the end of the story. In many ways, it was only the beginning. During Advent, we aren’t just waiting to celebrate a sweet memory. We are waiting to celebrate a profound reality, one of which, “No one knows the hour or the day.”
Advent provides us with an opportunity to cultivate a real longing for God. It is a time of repentance, symbolized by the purple vestments worn by the priest. Yet, the repentance of Advent takes on a different tone than the repentance of Lent. Lent is more sorrowful, a time to turn away from sin and to recall the gruesome reality of the Passion and the mystery of the Resurrection. The repentance of Advent is part of the love story.
Reception of the sacrament of reconciliation is a requirement for all couples preparing to receive matrimony, who are in a state of serious sin. However, it is common practice for couples to receive the sacrament who are not in a state of serious sin. It is a part of the preparation, a part of the joyful anticipation of the grace received in the sacrament of matrimony, and of the grace of the union between the couple and God.
Of course, there are many other preparations that go into a wedding. Many of the preparations are joy-filled, but most are tinged with a touch of sorrow. A bride packing up her things in order to move into a home with her husband, the final farewells at the end of a wedding reception – these are joyful moments, but they are also moments of grieving. Old attachments are fading, as new attachments grow stronger.
During Advent, we are invited to prepare for the great wedding feast of the Lamb. Because we know not the day of Christ’s return, we are called to be ever ready. Advent affords us a more focused time of preparation. We are called to let go of the old attachments, and attach ourselves ever more deeply to Christ.
The irony is that the mainstream celebration of Christmas (and Advent) is oriented in the opposite direction. The culture we live in has a materialist mindset to Christmas, a mindset focused on what we will get or give. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and the practice of gift-giving can be an opportunity for true generosity.
Nevertheless, in the midst of this preparation, we mustn’t lose sight of the importance of preparing our hearts for Christ – ever mindful of the fact that his coming is imminent. As we sing the words of the classic Advent hymn, let us be mindful that the lyrics are as true now as ever they were,
“Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”