Happy New Year, everyone! As you all know, this week the Church began a new liturgical year; and, as usual, we begin the new year with the Season of Advent, a four-week period of preparation for the arrival, the coming, the advent of the Messiah.
I heartily encourage all of you to wish everyone you meet during this time a Happy New Year! Then, when people give you that inquisitive look, take that as the perfect opportunity to evangelize our faith, to explain why Catholics celebrate this as the new year, to explain who the Messiah is, and why we need this Advent season to prepare for His arrival.
Note that I did not say that this is a time of preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ. This is a time of preparation for the arrival of Christ, which arrival includes both His birth 2000 years ago and His expected second coming at an hour we do not yet know.
We Christians live between Christmas and the final judgment, between the first coming of Christ and His second coming. These are the two pillars upon which we build the bridge of our life. Both advents are commemorated during this season. In the Gospel of Mark, our Blessed Lord tells us, “Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: 'Watch!'” (Mk 13:35-37).
Christ is not reminding us here to commemorate a past event, but rather alerting us to a future event. He is admonishing us to prepare for that future event, which can happen at any time. The season of Advent reminds us how unwise it is to put off our preparations for the future when we do not know the day or the hour (cf. Mt 24:36; 15:13; Mk 13:32). We want to be prepared always so that the day of judgment may be a joyful day for us, the day on which we shall receive our heavenly reward.
The preparation of which Christ speaks, while it has many external and material manifestations, is first and foremost an internal and spiritual preparation. It is preparation of our souls to receive Christ into the world — His first coming — and to stand before Him to face our final judgment — His second coming.
This is why the liturgical color for Advent is violet, the same color as Lent, because this is a penitential season, a time of increased prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, a time to mortify, not indulge ourselves. I have always found it odd that people say it is impossible to diet during this time of year, during this time of increased prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
However, this is the other reason why I encourage Catholics to wish people a Happy New Year. When we evangelize our faith and explain to others the meaning of the Advent season, we shall, at the same time, dispel the secular myth that this is the Christmas season.
The Christmas joy and celebrations will come in their due time, four weeks from now. Christmas is, indeed, a season and not just a day; but that season begins on December 25th, it does not end on December 25th — at least not for us Catholics. We all know that there are twelve days of Christmas. December 25th is the first of these twelve days. The Epiphany is the twelfth day; however, the Christmas Season continues until the Feast of the Lord's Baptism, which might be a whole week later. In some European cultures the Christmas Season does not officially end until Candlemas Day, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on February 2nd. So, Christmas is, indeed, a season. It is a long season filled with great joy and celebration; but as we all know, before any celebration there must be preparation; preparation that is laborious; preparation that may be tedious; preparation that may be so painful that one wonders if it is all worth it; and preparation that often lasts much longer than the celebration itself.
Advent is our time of preparation. Without this preparation, we cannot fully appreciate or even begin to understand the reason for the Christmas celebration.
Our Protestant brethren have popularized an expression that we frequently hear during this time of year: “Remember the reason for the season.” The “reason,” of course, is Christ.
Christ is the reason for the Christmas season, but we cannot begin to understand the need for a Christmas season, the need for the Incarnation, the need for the birth of the Savior, until we have reflected upon why He is coming in the first place, why He had to come. This is what the Advent season is for.
What joy that God humbled Himself to become a man, thereby elevating the dignity of our human nature. We commemorate that event at every Mass when the priest pours that drop of water representing His humanity into the wine representing His divinity. The priest prays, “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, Who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.”
But why did He humble Himself to share in our humanity? Because we are fallen. Because we are sinners in need of a Savior. If we do not first recognize our need for salvation, then we shall not recognize the need for a Savior. Once we acknowledge this need for a Savior, then, we shall truly rejoice at His birth. Then, we shall fully and properly enjoy the Christmas season.
This is why I always feel so sorry for those people who habitually come to Mass only once, maybe twice, a year. Because they have deprived themselves of that authentic Christmas joy. How can they understand or truly celebrate the Christ Mass, if they have not prepared for it by observing Advent? It is like walking in on the punch line of a joke. One cannot really share in the laughter if one has not heard the lead-in. Of course, in this case, sin and salvation are no joke.
The Advent season is not just a throw-away season. It is not just that one hour a week to which we give a nod in the midst of all our Christmas shopping and Christmas parties and Christmas preparations. Advent is our Christmas preparation. Decorations and parties and presents are not how we prepare for Christmas. They are certainly wonderful and to be encouraged in moderation, of course but they are an outward sign of the internal joy that we experience at the birth of the Savior. They do not prepare us for that birth. They do not prepare our minds, or our souls, or our bodies for the coming of the Savior for His first coming or His second coming.
Recall the words of the prophet Isaiah:
Would that you [Lord] might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of You in our ways! Behold, You are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind. There is none who calls upon Your name, who rouses himself to cling to You; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt. Yet, O Lord, You are our father; we are the clay and You are the potter: we are all the work of Your hands. (Isaiah 64:5-7)
Isaiah is teaching us about contrition and reconciliation. This is how we prepare for the coming of our Savior, by acknowledging our need for salvation, by acknowledging our sins.
During the Penitential Rite at the beginning of Mass, the priest invites us to examine our consciences with these or similar words: “In order that we may be prepared to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us acknowledge our sins.” That little “advent” we have at the beginning of every Mass is the heart of this whole Advent season. The preparation we make to receive our Blessed Lord in the Holy Eucharist, to welcome Him into our bodies, is the same preparation we make to welcome Him into the world, to welcome Him into our hearts, souls, and minds. We prepare by purging ourselves of sin and creating a temple worthy of receiving Him, a tabernacle worthy of holding Him. This can only be done by first examining our consciences, going to confession, and doing penance for the wrongs we have committed. Then, we can properly rejoice when the Savior comes, because with His birth we know that we are redeemed. We know that our sins are forgiven. Through the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, we can understand, we can see, we can taste, even, the love and mercy of the Father.
Once we have prepared ourselves in this way, then we are not only ready to celebrate the birth of Christ 2000 years ago, but we are also ready for when He comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Our whole life is a constant advent, a perpetual preparing for the coming of the Lord, being ready at all times for His return.
So this year, let us not only keep in mind the reason for the Christmas season, but also the reason for the Advent season, that necessary season without which there is no reason for the Christmas season, that necessary season without which there is no reason for the Christ Mass.
© Copyright 2003 Catholic Exchange
(Fr. Augustine H.T. Tran attended seminary at the North American College in Rome, Italy, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1998. He holds a Licentiate in Canon Law from the Catholic University of America and serves in the Archdiocese of Atlanta as an educator at one of the local Catholic high schools. He may be contacted via email at email@example.com.)