Sunday, December 2, 2012

Advent: A Time of Penance and Preparation

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade,
the official start of the "Christmas Season"
Amen, amen I say to you, that you shall lament and weep, but the world shall rejoice; and you shall be made sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.
John 16:20

Many people bemoan the fact that our society no longer waits until Thanksgiving to start the official "Christmas season."  For several generations our society has viewed the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade as the official start of the Christmas season, and many feel it is just wrong to start the Christmas season any sooner than that.

But even the Macy's Parade is an entire month before Christmas.  How is it that we are celebrating Christmas when it hasn't even started yet?  Is there really any difference between starting the "Christmas season" 30 days before Christmas as opposed to 90 days before?  Either way, when Christmas Day actually arrives, most people are so sick of it they just want it over with.  

And what the heck has a big Snoopy float got to do with the true story of Christmas?  The real Christmas story is about God in the second Person of the Trinity coming down to earth and taking on the nature of man in order to "save us all from Satan's power when we have gone astray", or as Philippians 2:6-7 says:
Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man.
Today, December 2, is the beginning of Advent.  The dictionary gives us two definitions for the word Advent:
1.  The arrival of a notable person, thing or event.
 2.  The first season of the church year, leading up to Christmas and including the four preceding Sundays.
The Liturgical Year
beginning with Advent
Certainly Christmas is about the arrival of the most notable Person in human history - the arrival of God to this earth in the form of a man.  And today, the first day of Advent, does indeed mark the beginning of a new liturgical year in the Church calendar.  The liturgical year celebrates the life of Christ and the life of the Church, and it all began with the seemingly inconspicuous birth of a baby in a manger in a small, unimportant town called Bethlehem.  We know that in the weeks and months preceding the birth of our Lord, only a handful of people on the entire earth were aware of Our Lord's imminent coming, that being Mary, Jesus' mother, and Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Elizabeth and Zacharias, the parents of John the Baptist, and most probably Mary's parents, Anne and Joachim.  The rest of the world was in complete ignorance that their Creator was about to be born as a man.

Thus, there were no parades, no parties, no festive lights, no gift giving, no rushing about in stores and knocking each other down to get the latest gadget.  There were just two people who were silently preparing themselves to welcome their Lord and Savior into the world.  

When it comes to Christmas, as with almost everything else in life, the world has it completely backwards from the way God intended.  Everywhere we go we see lights, decorations, Christmas trees (now referred to as "holiday trees.").  People are already starting to wish each other Merry Christmas, if they don't feel too intimidated by the secular left to instead say Happy Holidays.  I have found the ad campaign by Macy's this year to be particularly interesting.  It is one word:  "Believe." They don't tell us exactly what it is we are to believe, but it seems they would like us all to believe in Santa Claus.  There is certainly no hint of the Christ Child anywhere in their ads or anywhere in their stores, so we know that can't be it.  They don't even have the word "Christmas" anywhere in their ads.  The closest we come is "holidays."  And of course, "Santa Claus", who has become the patron saint of capitalism.

Advent, in contrast to Christmas, is all about looking forward, preparing, anticipating.  Advent is NOT a time of celebration.  The main color for Advent is purple, which is a color of penance.  This is the same color that is used during Lent.  Our Savior is coming and we need to be cleansing our hearts and souls and preparing a place for Him.

There is a wonderful new publication out that is a sort of "Magnificat" magazine for those who prefer the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, or the Traditional Latin Mass as many of us call it.  It is called "Laudamus te" and the first issue just came out.  It contains the ordinary of the Mass along with readings for each day, and other articles and features as well.  This first issue is, unsurprisingly, dedicated to observing Advent.  It contains an article written by Father James Fryar, FSSP, entitled "An Anxious Waiting."  Father Fryar answers the question of whether we should be playing Christmas music during Advent, or putting up Christmas decorations or even attending Christmas parties during the season of Advent.

Father Fryar writes:
The reason society celebrates Christmas after Thanksgiving is primarily for commerce -- which is completely wrong. We should not be celebrating Christmas in order to make a profit and sell merchandise. This is clear. However, during the time of Advent, we should be longing for and awaiting the time of Our Savior, just as the patriarchs of the Old Testament did. Many of the holy texts of the Mass point us in that direction:
To Thee have I lifted my soul; in Thee, O my God, I put my trust, let me not be ashamed: neither let my enemies laugh at me: for none of them that wait on Thee shall be confounded. (Ps 14:1, First Sunday of Advent.)
I will be the first to admit that all the lights, decorations and even a lot of the music are very alluring.  They give us a "good feeling."  But Advent is not about "feeling good."  Advent is a time of prayer, penance, reflection and preparation for the coming of Christ to earth.  Father Fryar tells us:
Christmas parties are definitely not what we want to do during Advent.  During Advent we want to mortify ourselves and fast.  We want to keep vigil with the virgins with their lamps, awaiting the coming of the bridegroom (Mt. 25).  Our Divine Master once posed the question to the Pharisees:  'Can the children of the marriage fast, as long as the bridegroom is with them?'  (Mk. 2:19).  Likewise, we could say it is not right to feast before the bridegroom arrives.   
The world uses these important weeks before Christmas not to prepare for the coming of our Lord and Savior, but to party and carouse.  Business people exploit this time of year to make a profit.  We hear all about the material aspects of what is called Christmas but none of the spiritual meaning.  Our Enemy does everything he can to divert our attention from where it should be.  He wants us all to concentrate on material desires and just "feel good" so that we think that is all Christmas is about.  Satan's way is always to draw you in with the expectation of fulfilling your desires, and then leave you with emptiness and meaninglessness in your life because you have effectively shut God out.  God's way is one that demands self denial and penance, a way that does not appeal to our carnal senses.  But the end of that hard road of self denial is a reward of great joy and fulfillment beyond our understanding.

All of the lights and celebration are there to draw us in, to celebrate a season that has nothing to do with the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Christmas is not until December 25.  Ironically, the world considers December 25 to be the end of Christmas.  The lights, trees and decorations will be coming down shortly after Christmas Day.  You will not hear any more Christmas music after December 25.  There will be no more "Christmas" shows on TV, no more "Christmas" parties.  The "celebration" will be at an end.  Just at the time when the True Light will have come into the world beckoning us to come to Him, the world will turn its back and return to the darkness and emptiness.

But December 25 will be just the start of a time of celebration for those of us who will have spent the prior weeks as a time of mortification and penance.  December 25 is not the end of Christmas but just the beginning.  There are 12 days of Christmas, as the song says, which takes us to January 6, the time of the Epiphany.  This will not be a time of drunken carousing and crass materialism, but a time of celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior, who is come to save the world from death and darkness.

But from now until December 25 we should all be preparing our minds and hearts to welcome our Lord Jesus Christ and to understand more completely the great significance of His coming to Earth.  It means separating ourselves from the illusions of the world and turning towards the reality of God.  As we are told in the readings from today's Mass:
May we receive Thy mercy, O Lord, in the midst of Thy Temple, that we may with becoming honor prepare for the approaching solemnities of our redemption.

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  1. Thank you for a great article! I wanted to share this OTHER article I read about Advent. I found this to be interesting, because I had always thought Advent was a penitential season as well:

    "We often think of Advent as a penitential season because the liturgical color for Advent is violet, like the color of Lent, which is a penitential season.

    However, in reality, Advent is not a penitential season. Surprise!

    According to the Code of Canon Law:

    ***Can. 1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.***

    Although local authorities can establish additional penitential days, this is a complete listing of the penitential days and times of the Latin Church as a whole, and Advent is not one of them."

    This came from Jimmy Akin's blog. You can read the whole thing here:

    God bless you this Advent Season!

    1. The very fact that the color of Advent is purple shows that it is a penitential season. Until recent times, there was mandatory fasting during this time. We don't celebrate when we are fasting.

      From Scott Richert

      Advent is called a "little Lent," because, like Lent, it is a time of repentance. While fasting during Advent used to be universal, most Western Christians today treat Advent as an early part of the Christmas season. Eastern Rite Catholics (and the Eastern Orthodox), however, continue to celebrate Advent with the Philip's Fast, named after the Apostle Philip. The fast doesn't really have anything to do with the Apostle Philip, other than the fact that it starts on November 15, the day after his feast in the Eastern calendar. It runs through Christmas Eve, December 24.

      Thanks for your kind words, and may God bless you as well.


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