I was driving to the church the other day and lo and behold, there were THREE houses nearby that were already decorated for Christmas. I watched a cartoon that I enjoy - the episode aired on Nov 15 - and it was their CHRISTMAS episode. I got my hair cut yesterday and what was playing on the radio? Yep. Christmas music.
So, why bother with Advent? Most American Protestants don't have a history with Advent (although some Lutherans, Presbyterians, and members of the Anglican Communion certainly do) and Advent doesn't exist in the traditions of the Orthodox (they mark the season with St. Philip's Fast); coupled with the secular push for Christmas, Advent seems to be easily forgotten and never truly missed. I think there needs to be a great effort by theologians and the Catholic Church herself, truly rededicating herself to Advent; part of the liturgical renewal of the Mass of Blessed Paul VI was to give Advent a deeper presence in the lives of Catholics - it didn't really work.
In 1966, Blessed Paul VI expanded the forms of penance for the Fridays of the year (so often misinterpreted that "Catholics didn't have to abstain from meat on Fridays anymore"). The backstory is that there was a very big push after the Second Vatican Council (1961-1965) to end the "Eurocentric" attitude of the Curia, acknowledging the reality that a majority of practicing Catholics now live in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Therefore, when they reformed the Latin Martyrologium (the "saint of the day") there arose many more saints from these other areas instead of focusing on saints from the early Latin church, who were mostly Roman, and nearly always European. Being conscious of the catholicity (universality) of the Church, Blessed Paul VI wrote in Paenitemini about the history of penance, about its importance, and about how it was practiced around the Church. Understanding that so many Catholics misunderstood "meatless Fridays", and knowing that meatless Fridays made no sense to cultures that were vegetarian, Blessed Paul VI encouraged the bishops of each nation to address this issue and devise something that made sense for their culture (thereby lifting the requirement of "meatless Fridays", while at the same time reaffirming that Fridays always have been - and always will be - a day of penance in the life of a Catholic).
So, the US bishops released a statement on November 18, 1966 addressing times of the year for penance and how American Catholics should respond to the Pope's gesture. Addressing particular times of the year when the Church takes on a penitential mood (Advent being one of those times) they said, in part:
Changing customs, especially in connection with preparation for Christmas, have diminished popular appreciation of the Advent season. Something of a holiday mood of Christmas appears now to be anticipated in the days of the Advent season. As a result, this season has unfortunately lost in great measure the role of penitential preparation for Christmas that it once had. Zealous Christians have striven to keep alive or to restore the spirit of Advent by resisting the trend away from the disciplines and austerities that once characterized the season among us. Perhaps their devout purpose will be better accomplished, and the point of Advent will be better fostered, if we rely on the liturgical renewal and the new emphasis on the liturgy to restore its deeper understanding as a season of effective preparation for the mystery of the Nativity... If in all Christian homes, churches, schools, retreats and other religious houses, liturgical observances are practiced with fresh fervor and fidelity to the penitential spirit of the liturgy, then Advent will again come into its own. Its spiritual purpose will again be clearly perceived. A rich literature concerning family and community liturgical observances appropriate to Advent has fortunately developed in recent years. We urge instruction based upon it, counting on the liturgical renewal of ourselves and our people to provide for our spiritual obligations with respect to this season.
I enjoy Advent. I remember years ago at the Presbyterian church we attended, there was always a family that would come up on the Sundays of Advent and they'd place another figure in the manger scene; I remember doing this one year, but I was really young - I don't remember how old. And there was the lighting of the Advent wreath. When I started to attend an Episcopal parish, they also had their Advent wreath; still, I didn't know anyone who had an Advent wreath in their home until I became a Catholic - a lot of families will have Advent wreaths and/or Advent calendars in their homes. This gave me the inspiration to buy my own Advent wreath, which I light every year (but because I'm cheap, I only light the candles on Sundays and leave them burning for only 20 minutes or so).
Zealous Christians have striven to keep alive or to restore the spirit of Advent by resisting the trend away from the disciplines and austerities that once characterized the season among us. When I read that line for the first time, I thought, "Ok....what ARE 'the disciplines and austerities that once characterized the season'?" One thing I definitely wanted to do was reconnect with our Catholic roots, so I found THIS book, which gives Advent and Christmas reflections from the Church Fathers. I also looked a little outside of Catholic circles in order to explore how other Christians celebrate Advent. Some Lutherans encourage fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, but now that I'm diabetic, I probably shouldn't fast. Additionally, it seems that from the US bishops' point of view, the penance offered during Advent is more liturgical in nature: "Advent (like Lent) includes an element of penance in the sense of preparing, quieting and disciplining our hearts for the full joy of Christmas. This penitential dimension is expressed through the color purple, but also through the restrained manner of decorating the church and altar." So, perhaps another form of penance proper to the season is simply resisting the push to jump ahead to Christmas before the day has arrived.
Lutheran, Catholic, and Anglican resources all encourage finding more time for deep prayer and reading the Scriptures. They also encourage keeping an Advent calendar, putting up a creche (manger scene), or lighting an Advent wreath. Catholic resources also encourage keeping a Jesse tree, especially if there are young children in the house. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops explains, "A Jesse Tree depicts the relationship of Jesus with Jesse and other biblical figures who were the ancestors of Jesus. Jesse was the father of King David and is often looked upon as the first person in the genealogy of Jesus...at the beginning of Advent and every day a new ornament can be added to it. These ornaments represent individual figures or stories from the Old and New Testaments." I proooooobably won't be doing that, but I can definitely see the value of having one if you have children.
I think observing Advent is important in the renewal of our spiritual lives, myself especially. The Incarnation is the most earth-shaking event in history up to that point (I think only being surpassed by his resurrection and ascension). God Himself, the creator of all that is - visible and invisible - came to earth as a baby. He that is timeless entered time. The Catechism explains the Incarnation:
The Word became flesh for us in order to save us by reconciling us with God, who "loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins": "the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world", and "he was revealed to take away sins"...The Word became flesh so that thus we might know God's love (CCC, 458)...The Word became flesh to be our model of holiness (CCC, 459)...The Word became flesh to make us "partakers of the divine nature" (CCC, 460).
I think we take this for granted now (especially myself). Critics always like to challenge the accuracy of our dating for the year of Christ's birth instead of contemplating the great mystery that the invisible God became man. The Catholic Church, with a deeper appreciation for the Old Testament than what is typically found in the Evangelical/Fundamentalist worlds, can liturgically highlight this significance, comparing the Light of Christ with the time of hope and expectation that is within the pages of the Old Testament.
Borrowing from a variety of resources, Protestant and Catholic, here are some ways to contemplate the mystery and spirituality of Advent:
During this season we have a dual focus in worship. On one hand, we anticipate the celebration of Christ’s historical advent or birth in Bethlehem . On the other hand, we anticipate Christ’s final advent as the world’s Lord and Judge at the end of history...We spend this season most fruitfully not by counting down the days to December 25 but by preparing ourselves to celebrate the Incarnation of the Son of God and by amending our lives in the anticipation of his promised return. Advent is a season to slow down, to reflect and to meditate on the great mercies of God...The Message of Advent is to “prepare.” The Lord is coming whether the world is ready or not. For those unprepared, his coming means judgment. For those ready for his coming, it means salvation.
The mood of Advent is expressed in the liturgical color, purple. It depicts a feeling of quiet dignity, royalty and repentance. Purple was the traditional color of a king’s robe; the coming Christ is King of kings. Advent, like Lent, is a time for solemn and sober thought about one’s sins, leading to repentance. It denotes a quiet time for watching, waiting and praying for Christ to come again, personally and universally...Advent stresses not so much fulfillment as anticipation of fulfillment: the Lord is coming! Christians have great expectations of Christ’s coming again. As a family looks forward to a son returning from a war and as a bride anticipates her wedding day, so a Christian looks forward with joy to Christ’s coming. In the quiet joy of anticipation and not the joy of celebration of a past event.
The Four Last Things – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell – have been traditional themes for Advent meditation. The characteristic note of Advent is therefore expectation, rather than penitence, although the character of the season is easily coloured by an analogy with Lent. The anticipation of Christmas under commercial pressure has also made it harder to sustain the appropriate sense of alert watchfulness, but the fundamental Advent prayer remains ‘Maranatha’ – ‘Our Lord, come’ (1 Corinthians 16.22).
In Advent we expectantly wait for the One who has already come. We anticipate the promised justice of God’s new world, yet we praise God who raised the “righteous branch” to rule with justice and righteousness. We hope for the restoration of the afflicted, the tormented, and the grieving, yet we delight that healing has come in Christ. We long for the beating of swords into plowshares, yet we rejoice that the Prince of Peace has appeared. We yearn for the barren deserts of our inner cities to flourish, yet we laud the desert Rose that has bloomed. We dream of the land where lions and lambs live in harmony, yet we acclaim the child born to lead us into the promised land.
Our Advent discipline is a discipline of watching and waiting. Watching for and waiting for the presence of Christ in our lives and in our world. Watching and waiting in the midst of all that the world throws at us, for the Advent discipline is not about engaging in, as they used to say, “pie in the sky when you die.” Rather it is about recognizing that the coming of Christ is transformational for our world and our lives.
Advent teaches us to wait in anticipation of the good, to not give up, but to have hope in God. Advent teaches us to wait for the good to appear, for justice to prevail, for wisdom to emerge...In the end, learning to wait for the Spirit of God to move in our midst, in our culture, family, in me. Anticipate the good, to be open, receptive, and mindful of divine wisdom and love.
The Liturgy frequently celebrates the Blessed Virgin Mary in an exemplary way during the season of Advent. It recalls the women of the Old Testament who prefigured and prophesied her mission; it exalts her faith and the humility with which she promptly and totally submitted to God’s plan of salvation; it highlights her presence in the events of grace preceding the birth of the Savior. Popular piety also devotes particular attention to the Blessed Virgin Mary during Advent, as is evident from the many pious exercises practiced at this time, especially the novena of the Immaculate Conception and of Christmas...There can be no doubt that the feast of the pure and sinless Conception of the Virgin Mary, which is a fundamental preparation for the Lord's coming into the world, harmonizes perfectly with many of the salient themes of Advent. This feast also makes reference to the long messianic waiting for the Savior’s birth and recalls events and prophecies from the Old Testament, which are also used in the Liturgy of Advent...The approach of Christmas is celebrated throughout the American continent with many displays of popular piety, centered on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (12 December), which dispose the faithful to receive the Savior at his birth. Mary, who was "intimately united with the birth of the Church in America, became the radiant Star illuminating the proclamation of Christ the Savior to the sons of these nations."
Popular piety perceives that it is impossible to celebrate the Lord's birth except in an atmosphere of sobriety and joyous simplicity and of concern for the poor and marginalized. The expectation of the Lord's birth makes us sensitive to the value of life and the duties to respect and defend it from conception. Popular piety intuitively understands that it is not possible coherently to celebrate the birth of him "who saves his people from their sins" without some effort to overcome sin in one's own life, while waiting vigilantly for Him who will return at the end of time.
I hope that we've been able to rediscover some of the theology behind the Advent season and how it can benefit us spiritually. So, how do we follow the guidance of our bishops in order "to keep alive or to restore the spirit of Advent"? Perhaps by adopting the Advent wreath and creche starting the first Sunday of Advent. There are CDs out there with hymns for Advent, most notably the Benedictines of Mary Queen of Apostles' album Advent at Ephesus. The bishops also advised that we "rely on the liturgical renewal and the new emphasis on the liturgy" by participating in the Mass (why not daily?). Following the encouragement of the Second Vatican Council and taking the liturgical renewal to the next step, perhaps use Advent to pray the Morning and Evening Prayers every day (along with the O Antiphons). Something that I like to do from time to time is to watch the beginning of the masterpiece Jesus of Nazareth, just until his birth (then, during Christmastide, watch from his birth until his baptism).
The hardest part of giving Advent time is suppressing Christmas - all the Christmas music is on the radio and all the Christmas shows are on television. Many suggest to keep the old tradition of putting the Christmas tree up on Christmas Eve (or leaving it undecorated until then) and leaving it up until at least the Baptism of the Lord, which is celebrated the first Sunday after January 6 (usually). There are some who recommend keeping the decorations up until the end of Christmastide (Feb 2), but that might be too much for me! Some have recommended to at least leave the Creche set up until Feb 2, which I could do. It might also be a great time to just pray a bit more, contemplate Scripture a bit more, and maybe visit the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
Advent is an amazing time of year that deserves it's space on the calendar. I hope this posting at least plants some seeds in your heart so as to take advantage of the spiritual richness in this liturgical season. Advent is very deep and rich and valuable to our spiritual life and I pray that the Western Church can embrace this amazing and nurturing time of year.
A blessed Advent to you and yours!