Advent began during one of the biggest shopping weekends of the year, with many consumers overlooking the spiritual significance in favor of finding deals in stores. As the Church enters this Advent season, one friar stresses the importance of knowing the real meaning of Advent — not common misconceptions — and the hope it brings to us.
I have come to believe quite sincerely that in the 21st century, especially, it is the duty, nay, the responsibility of every believer to disentangle what is the truth concerning the beliefs of Christianity from the presuppositions and conclusions formulated by our culture and society that masquerade as the truth of Christian belief. Such conclusions have worked themselves into the psyche of many believers, giving them a distorted or even erroneous understanding of what it is that we truly believe.
The season of Advent is a perfect case in point. I can recall, when I was in formation, one conversation with a very earnest friar who tried to persuade me that the Church should give up any pretense of an “Advent” and just “give-in” to the “holiday season” and leave it at that. It wasn’t worth trying to contend, he told me, with a cultural ethos that wanted Christmas to begin after Thanksgiving and end on Christmas day. Such commentary did not sit well with me then, and it still does not today. Neither, however, do comments that suggest believers storm the bastions of mercantile entrepreneurs and tear down the decorations that have decked their merry halls since just after Halloween in a sort of iconoclastic frenzy reminiscent of Zurich in the throes of 16th century reform!
Both perceptions are fruit, I believe, of too little attention paid to the purpose, significance, and meaning of Advent. Unless we attend to the shape and hue, the texture and nuance of the many layered meaning that Advent speaks to deepening faith in our lives, as does any season or feast celebrated by the Church, we run the risk of letting others determine that meaning for us. And where do we go to hear Advent speak? In the texts, the readings and prayers, of the Advent liturgy itself.
Actively Waiting for the Lord
Now, despite the moans and groans of some when reference is made to the texts of the third edition of the Roman Missal, there is in the case of Advent some very significant development in the theology of the presidential prayers of the season — albeit one must take care how one proclaims them! This significance lies in the description of the attitude of believers who await the Lord’s coming.
In the previous translation, the texts for the First Sunday of Advent spoke of providing an “eager welcome” for the Lord when he returns; now the texts speak of “running” forth to meet him. In the texts for the Second Sunday of Advent, the previous translation depicts the faithful as “receiving Christ” with open hearts in welcome, while the translation of the third edition of the Roman Missal describes them as “setting out in haste” to meet the Lord.
If one stops and considers it, these are two very different responses to the principle reality expressed in Advent, which is far from just “getting ready for Christmas.” It is, rather, a quite profound expectation of the consummation of what God began at the beginning of time. In the previous translation of the collects, believers are rather passive, preparing for and receiving some “one.” In the current translation, believers are expected to be active, moving with a sense of urgency brought about by the seriousness and depth of “the one” they are expecting. This latter sense captures in profound relief the entire meaning of Advent as that which points us to the fact that we have a future; a truth that for many today seems to be in question.
Hope for the Future
Such an understanding of Advent is a crucial challenge to contemporary cultural impressions of the season as an insignificant, or merely perfunctory, period of time prior to Christmas. Advent is the season that reminds us of, points us to, and sustains us in the direction toward which faith leads — the fulfillment of all that God promises, when the lion will lie down with the lamb, the child will play at the adder’s lair, and there will no longer be hurt or pain on the holy mountain of the Lord. These images are not the work of fantasy nor are they the childish dreams of those unable to face the harsh realities of life. The Christian confronts the dull and dismal acceptance of what life seems to be, the cries for deliverance, the yearning for meaning, for peace, with the truth of what human life is — bound to the life of God.
Last December, I spent the fourth Sunday of Advent and the entire Christmas season at the parish of Saint Rose in Newtown, Conn., made famous by its response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which happens to be my home parish. Culture and society perceiving this time of year as one of fabricated bliss and cheer to make the end of the civil year pleasant could only react to the events in Connecticut with dismay, shock, and lament that here was a community, which “could never celebrate Christmas again.”
Such sentiment would indeed ring true if that community of believers lived by the world’s assumption of what Advent and Christmas are. Fortunately, they did not and do not; what this tragedy brings into such refined and yet painful focus is the great need for God to bring to completion what he began. Their cries of pain and torment do not communicate the despair of never being able to celebrate Christmas again, but rather demonstrate that an Advent that would lead us to merely a “happy holiday” is useless, inane, and mocks the true need for which communities who experience such tragedies especially require resolution.
The communities of Saint Rose of Lima Parish, and indeed, of all believers must enter Advent with the desire to experience something more than the idyllic Rockwellian Christmas. The Savior to whom Advent challenges us to run with all haste to meet is one who brings forth that time when every tear will be wiped away, when there will be no more sadness, no more mourning, when the morning star which never sets shall bring light to all creation. This is the truth that Advent dares us faithful to believe, which culture and society may never understand, but one that no earthly wish for good cheer, peace, and joy can be fulfill.
— Fr. Jim is assistant professor of theology at Providence, R.I., College, where he has taught for two years. He earned a doctorate in sacramental and liturgical theology in 2012 from The Catholic University of America in Washington.
Editor’s note: The HNP Communications Office welcomes friars to submit reflections about holidays, feast days and other topics of a timely nature. Those interested in submitting an essay for consideration for a future issue ofHNP Today should contact communications director Jocelyn Thomas by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The previous reflection, by Michael Duffy, OFM, was published in the Nov. 20 issue of HNP Today.