Saturday, September 27, 2014

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

O ALMIGHTY God, who hast committed to the hands of men the ministry of reconciliation; We humbly beseech thee, by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, to put it into the hearts of many to offer themselves for this ministry; that thereby mankind may be drawn to thy blessed kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. --Ember Day collect, 1928 Book of Common Prayer

I just love this time of year. I love it. I love all the seasons, but I think I enjoy Autumn the most. The weather is usually nice, with brisk temperatures, warm sunlight, little to no humidity, cool nights and mornings. The perennials are for sale, the leaves start changing color, that chimney smoke smell is hanging in the air again...I love it!

This week in both the Extraordinary Form and the Ordinariate Use of the Latin Rite, we mark the Autumn Ember Days. As a reminder, these are days of fasting and prayer in order to ask God for a plentiful harvest, as well as to ask for his guidance on our priests (and I would add our deacons, as well).

Another reason why I love this time of the year is that this begins the "holiday countdown" of the year: Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Adding to that, I also love the religious aspects of this time of year: All Saints Day, All Souls Day, praying for the souls in purgatory during November, marking wonderful holy days like Christ the King, and then entering my favorite time of the liturgical year, Advent and Christmastide.

Halloween & the Holy Souls

I love Halloween, although there are a lot of Christians who reject it as something evil. Yes, if you use the day to worship demons or Satan, of course it's evil, but I don't look at it as evil for two reasons: we never used it as a negative day, and I understand its origins. As kids, we never used Halloween to endorse, practice, or celebrate evil - it was all in good fun. Our costumes were homemade (bravo, Mom!) and were loads of fun - to us, all we wanted was to have fun and get free candy. Even as teens, we never got into the demonic stuff - a couple kids at school did, like the fortune telling stuff or Ouija boards, but my friends and I never did. One of my favorite parts of Halloween is that this is when all those good television specials and movies come out. Again, not the gore-fest that people are into today, but the less harmful stuff of yesterday: Halloween specials from Garfield, Charlie Brown, Simpsons, and other cartoons; those old B&W horror movies from the 30s, like the original Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolfman. I usually marathon these DVDs throughout October. I even take out my copy of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.

For anyone who knows me, it goes without saying that I love Halloween candy, like popcorn balls, candy corn, and mountains of "fun size" candy bars. This month also begins three months of home decoration: first with pumpkins and witches, then with harvest corn, cornucopias, and turkeys, and then with all those amazing Christmas decorations; October is the gateway, the beginning, of all that festivity. Because I rent, I don't do all of that outdoor decorating, but if I ever own a house I would like to think that I would decorate for every season. When I was a kid we sold things called "Stickies" for a school fundraiser and they had some for every holiday; Mom used to always let me put them up on the picture window during the holidays.

As I've mentioned before, Halloween was really called All Hallow's Eve (or Evening) in English; it was the day before All Souls Day. What we know as "trick or treating" was how non-Catholics made fun of us, for on All Hallow's Eve, Catholics (especially children) would often go door-to-door, asking for donations for the poor or giving/receiving treats (like soul cakes in England); the kids would often dress up like their favorite saint. Because Catholics were seen as superstitious, non-Catholics would tease us by dressing up as devils and demons and trying to scare people who were out that night. So, because I know Halloween is really just the day before All Saints Day, it doesn't offend me like it does others.

Thanksgiving and All Saints

This brings us to the month of November, which All Hallow's Eve has ushered in: praying for the souls in purgatory. While we should always pray for the souls in purgatory, the Church makes special mention of it in the month of November. This is the end of our liturgical year, so the Church calls to mind in a special way the fact that we're coming to the end of our earthly life with each passing day; we think of our own mortality and our situation with God and, by praying for the souls in purgatory, we finish the liturgical year with great acts of charity. In November, the Church offers special indulgences for the souls in purgatory when we offer prayers while in a graveyard, and there are special novenas and prayers so that we can offer them for the souls in purgatory all month long. We begin November, however, by remembering all of those whom have met their final reward in God's heavenly kingdom - we celebrate All Saints Day on November 1 to celebrate God's mercy and his fidelity, that although we are all sinners we also may share in eternal life with the Holy Trinity, the angels, and the Blessed Mother.

November weather is great. The leaves are falling, the air is crisp, and you might need to pop on the heat at night. Out come the sweatshirts and sweatpants, football is in full swing (as well as hockey), and everyone's making plans to take vacation and see family. More holiday specials are on and warm thoughts of Thankgivings past abound; I often think about all those wonderful holidays with relatives that are no longer with us, or have moved far away - how much we took those holidays of years ago for granted.

As readers of this blog know, there are several events all competing for the title of "First Thanksgiving": the pilgrims in Massachusetts (1621), French missionaries in Toudessac, Quebec (1615), Pedro Menendez de Aviles in St. Augustine, FL (1565), and Don Juan de OƱate in El Paso, TX (1598). Regardless of whom we view as celebrating the "first" Thanksgiving in North America, one thing is for sure: we rightly thank God for our blessings. In 1789, President Washington proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving for the nation, "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God...that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country...for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed...and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us."

In 1863, President Lincoln set aside the last Thursday of November as an annual day of thanksgiving. "The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God...No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People."

In the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, there are certain prayers and verses that are selected for us because of Thanksgiving. Honour the LORD with thy substance, and with the first-fruits of all thine increase: so shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine (Proverbs 3:9-10).

Advent & Christmastide

After the major feasting of Thanksgiving, the holiday sales are in full swing (I still refuse to even THINK about Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving). Houses become decked out in lights, decorations, and manger scenes. Christmas specials fill December programming on television and I take out a TON of my Christmas DVDs and watch them. Only once since my wife left have I decorated the house, but I plan on decorating this year: a real Christmas tree, perhaps some garland, and definitely Christmas music (especially traditional carols). I hate all the generic "winter holiday" songs they pass off as Christmas carols these days, or the love songs that are considered Christmas carols because they said the word 'Christmas' once or twice, or because they put some jingle bells in the background. I'm not against secular Christmas music, because I really love the classics: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, White Christmas, Holly Jolly Christmas (it HAS to be from Burl Ives), and all of that good stuff from years ago. But also the traditional hymns that I grew up with: Joy to the World, O Little Town of Bethlehem, O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, O Holy Night, etc. And the more traditional the arrangement, the better - these songs lose their effect when modernized or made into pop tunes.

Growing up Presbyterian, we had Advent at church; I remember the nativity scene and lighting the advent wreath. In the Episcopal church, we had the same thing. Many non-Catholics reject Advent as "papist" and not Biblical, but thankfully during my youth I saw Advent being marked year after year. Most families, even Catholic ones, don't bring Advent into the home, though. You don't have to, but it is actually a nice tradition if you can do it. Now, I know I'm too affected by the culture - I cannot wait until Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to have my Christmas decorations up (since that's when Christmastide actually starts), so I usually start decorating soon after Thanksgiving. But during Advent I'll do things like not have my tree decorated until maybe a week before Christmas, or I'll have my manger scene set up, but it won't have the baby Jesus until Christmas. Plus, we can mark Advent liturgically through the praying of the Liturgy of the Hours or going to daily Mass. One of the great things that came out of the liturgical reform of the 1960s was that Advent became more of a season than it was before. As an altar server in the Extraordinary Form, I was disappointed to see that during Advent there were no special Collects or Prefaces, but they now exist in the new Ordinary Form. Also, we mustn't forget about the traditional 'O Antiphons' that mark the last days of Advent. Even with a house covered in Christmas decorations, bringing these few things into your life during Advent will help you pace yourself so that you won't have that "Christmas burnout" that so many of us have in December (especially since they start selling Christmas stuff as early as September now).

Advent is also a good time for penance - you'll notice that the colors of the vestments change to purple/violet during Advent. I used to wonder why - after all, we're eagerly anticipating Christmas, as well as Christ's Second Coming, so why the penance? Shouldn't we be feeling joy? And the answer is the glorious "both/and" of Catholicism - yes, we should feel joy, but also at the same time we need to remember that Christ WILL come again to judge the living and the dead and he promised that he will come at a time we least suspect; our death is usually always a surprise to us, no? And so we also remember to get right with God during Advent - many parishes offer an increase in Confession times for Catholics (especially the ones who only show up at Christmas and Easter) because the Church is eager to have all her children back home.

I think of penance in Advent in this manner: it's like not eating when you're hungry because you're going to have a wonderful meal in a few hours. Think of Mom cooking that delicious Christmas meal, but it's not going to be ready for a couple more hours and you're really hungry now. Instead of having a snack or a meal now, ruining your appetite for later, you make the decision to wait until dinner is ready before you eat. Now, you're not doing that with sadness, are you? No, you are making a small sacrifice now with the joyful anticipation of that yummy meal yet to come! And that's how I view penance in Advent. So, I usually unplug from Facebook during Advent, using that liberated free time to take care of personal things, engage in more prayer, or whatever. Maybe I'll also give up another activity or a particular food - or perhaps I'll try to go to daily Mass during Advent. It's not the penitential time of Lent, so you don't go into it with the same mindset - it's this joyful anticipation of the Nativity (and the Second Coming) that you are marking in Advent.

One of the things I absolutely love about Catholicism (and Eastern Orthodoxy) is that Christmas isn't over on December 26; we've entered into a Christmas season. First there is the fact that Christmas is such an important feast that we liturgically celebrate it for eight days (Dec 25 through Jan 1). This octave is included in the infamous twelve days of Christmas, from Dec 25 through January 5 (during which we're still singing Christmas carols at Mass) - the evening of Jan 5 (and the day of Jan 6) is the feast of the Epiphany. In Catholicism, this is mainly marking when the Magi and Shepherds come to adore the Christ Child; in Orthodoxy, it's the day of Christ's baptism when Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all present and reveal themselves to the world. So, the twelve days of Christmas mark when Christ was revealed to the world (to the shepherds, to the Magi, at His Baptism, to Simeon and the prophetess, Anna, etc.) and in the East, up to His baptism; in the West, we mark his baptism on January 13 (which concludes the 'octave' of Epiphany). By this time, even the churches have removed all the Christmas decorations and poinsettias from the sanctuary; however, the Christmas "season" doesn't truly end until 40 days after Christ's birth with the celebration of Candlemas, when Mary went to the temple for purification.

Conclusion

To me, October ushers in my favorite time of the year. Through the holidays of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas - along with all the spiritual holy days, seasons, customs, and events of these months - I am feeling my happiest. Maybe it is also because at this time of year we got to spend so much time with family. I miss my grandparents (RIP) and one of my uncles lives so far away now. When I was younger, the holidays always meant family, so maybe I also love this time of year because of those memories and the blessing that I can still get together with some of my family. Whatever the reason, I am excited with each passing day because, unlike that annoying song they play only at Christmas, October begins what I will always consider "the most wonderful time of the year."

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church is governed and sacntified: hear our prayer which we offer for all thy faithful people, that in their vocation and ministry each may serve thee in holiness and truth to the glory of thy name; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. --Ember day Collect, Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham