Saturday, November 21, 2015

So This Is.....Advent

I have too much time on my hands; if I didn't, then I wouldn't have been thinking about how I wanted to celebrate Advent this year. Most people - Catholic or otherwise - don't bother with Advent; the secular culture shoves Christmas down our throats earlier and earlier each year. This year the Christmas sale season (rather, the holiday sale season) showed up before Halloween. A few days before Halloween, I visited a local supermarket and walked down the aisle with all the Halloween candy and as I got to the end of the aisle, the candy slowly morphed into candy for Christmas and Hanukkah.

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 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!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Where in the Bible is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah is coming. We can see in the Bible where God instructs the Jewish people to celebrate Passover, for instance. But where is Hanukkah? It's in the Catholic (and Orthodox) versions of the Bible (that is, the Greek Old Testament, also called the Septuagint), contained in the books of 1 & 2 Maccabees, two of the books Martin Luther removed from his translation of the Bible; ironically enough, these books are not included in the Jewish Scriptures, either, because (in part) they were originally written in Greek.

The New Testament in John 10:22-39 mentions Hanukkah by the name of "the feast of the Dedication [of the Temple]": It was the feast of the Dedication at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon... This is Biblical evidence that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah since he was there at the Temple during the feast (which *should* lend some credence to the books of Maccabees). Let's look at the "meat and potatoes" of the story by examining the original story (in the same books of the Bible that contain Scripture encouraging prayers and offerings for the dead in Purgatory).

1 Macc 1:11-15 says, "In those days lawless men came forth from Israel, and misled many, saying, “Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles round about us, for since we separated from them many evils have come upon us.” This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king. He authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil.

At that time, King Antiochus of Greece conquered Egypt and then "went up against Israel and came to Jerusalem with a strong force. He arrogantly entered the sanctuary and took the golden altar, the lampstand for the light, and all its utensils. He took also the table for the bread of the Presence, the cups for drink offerings, the bowls, the golden censers, the curtain, the crowns, and the gold decoration on the front of the temple; he stripped it all off. He took the silver and the gold, and the costly vessels; he took also the hidden treasures which he found. Taking them all, he departed to his own land" (1 Macc 1:20-24).

After a couple of years, the king forced the Jews to pay an oppressive tribute, and then he arrived to the city with a great military force, subduing the people with false talks of peace, "but he suddenly fell upon the city, dealt it a severe blow, and destroyed many people of Israel. He plundered the city, burned it with fire, and tore down its houses and its surrounding walls. And they took captive the women and children, and seized the cattle. Then they fortified the city of David with a great strong wall and strong towers, and it became their citadel. And they stationed there a sinful people, lawless men" (1 Mac 1:30-34).

It became an ambush against the sanctuary, an evil adversary of Israel continually. On every side of the sanctuary they shed innocent blood; they even defiled the sanctuary. Because of them the residents of Jerusalem fled; she became a dwelling of strangers (1 Mac 1:36-38)...

Israel embraced the pagan beliefs of the Greeks. "Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath. And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and feasts, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they should forget the law and change all the ordinances. “And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.” In such words he wrote to his whole kingdom. And he appointed inspectors over all the people and commanded the cities of Judah to offer sacrifice, city by city. Many of the people, every one who forsook the law, joined them, and they did evil in the land; they drove Israel into hiding in every place of refuge they had."

Jesus and the Prophet Daniel have spoken about the "abomination of desolation" and the Fathers of the Church believe that this refers to the actions of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, for he went so far as to desecrate the temple of God. "...they erected a desolating sacrilege upon the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding cities of Judah, and burned incense at the doors of the houses and in the streets. The books of the law which they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. Where the book of the covenant was found in the possession of any one, or if any one adhered to the law, the decree of the king condemned him to death. They kept using violence against Israel, against those found month after month in the cities. And on the twenty-fifth day of the month they offered sacrifice on the altar which was upon the altar of burnt offering. According to the decree, they put to death the women who had their children circumcised, and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mothers’ necks" (1 Mac 1:54-61).

The story shifts to Mattathias and his five sons, including Judas Maccabeus. They openly defied the orders of the king and vowed to die before betraying the God of Israel. The next several chapters describe the battle between faithful Jews of Israel and the Gentiles and their followers. By 1 Mac 4, Judas and his followers had chased the enemy away and in celebration were determined to cleanse and rededicate the Temple.

"He chose blameless priests devoted to the law, and they cleansed the sanctuary and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place. They deliberated what to do about the altar of burnt offering, which had been profaned. And they thought it best to tear it down, lest it bring reproach upon them, for the Gentiles had defiled it. So they tore down the altar (4:42-45)..."

Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month...they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering which they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. All the people fell on their faces and worshiped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness; they offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise. They decorated the front of the temple with golden crowns and small shields; they restored the gates and the chambers for the priests, and furnished them with doors. There was very great gladness among the people, and the reproach of the Gentiles was removed. Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with gladness and joy for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev (1 Mac 4:52-59).

The feast of Hanukkah is reiterated in 2 Maccabees 1:18: "Since on the twenty-fifth day of Chislev we shall celebrate the purification of the temple, we thought it necessary to notify you, in order that you also may celebrate the feast of booths and the feast of the fire given when Nehemiah, who built the temple and altar, offered sacrifices."

Lastly, the famous story of the Hanukkah celebration where the oil for the lamp lasting for eight days can be found in the Jewish Talmud. Knowing the story in the Books of Maccabees helps put this story from the Talmud into context:

Commencing with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislew [Chislev, Kislev] there are eight days upon which there shall be neither mourning nor fasting. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oil that was there. It was when the might of the Hasmonean dynasty overcame and vanquished them that, upon search, only a single cruse of undefiled oil, sealed by the High Priest, was found. In it was oil enough for the needs of a single day. A miracle was wrought and it burned eight days. The next year they ordained these days a holiday with songs and praises."

As our Jewish brethren celebrate Hanukkah this year, let us remember the valiant efforts of these heroes of the People of God, of whom we are a part, as baptized Christians. As they celebrate the rededication of the Temple, let us think of our Lord - the New Temple - and contemplate what must have gone through his mind as he "was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon" in celebration of the feast. During this 'festival of lights', let us honor Jesus, the "light of the world". As it is written in the Psalms, "Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." Glory be to God in the Highest.