Friday, November 27, 2009
Are you ready? Here's Advent!
Ready or not, Advent is here!
And you know what that means is just 4 short weeks away - Christmas! Oh boy, the biggest season of a young child's heart!
I know, I know, as Catholics and Christians - Easter is supposed to be the highlight of our faith. And it is but...for the young (and us young at heart), Christmas holds a special, emotional place that is hard to compete. The Christmas carols, the decorations, the lights, sounds, and smells. Decorating the Christmas trees, the buying of special gifts, wrapping and the anticipation of the glow of in the faces of the people that we love on Christmas morning.
I admit that I can be a stick in the mud. I don't like to decorate until after Thanksgiving - but Thanksgiving is over now. And today the lights went on the house. At least some of them. I am still not sure how to get the lights to the very top of the house without killing myself. I will have to give it some thought...
But while we know that Lent is penitential, we seem a little schizophrenic for Advent. Are we penitent, are we happy, and what's up with this week's reading?
Luke 21: 25 - 28, 34 - 36 describes Jesus' return.
"And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
But take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a snare;
for it will come upon all who dwell upon the face of the whole earth.
But watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man."
This is the first Sunday of Advent. This is the kick-off Mass and this is what we get? Why are we talking about Jesus' return when he hasn't been even born yet? Did someone get the pages turned around?
Of course the answer is there has been no mistake.
Before we get too far into peeking into the manger for baby Jesus, our Church is trying to remind us that this was only the beginning. By reminding all of us of the end, the goal is for us to see deeper than the superficial and to see that this was God sending us his only son as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. That even Easter is not the end but only the enduring proof that Jesus conquered death and will return. Jesus returning is the promise and that is what why we are reading it this week.
When you think of it that way, it makes a lot of sense. It's good to remember the end goal when things get in the way and distract you along the journey. It helps strengthen us as we work through whatever we are dealing with and as we wait.
Advent is from the Latin adventus which means "coming." Originally, it was used to describe the entire mystery of the Incarnation. In the Old Testament, all the prophecies, all the ideas of the Savior was an Advent because it dealt with the coming of the Christ.
Likewise, the birth was an Advent and Jesus' final coming at the endtimes is an Advent.
Advent is sort of schizophrenic because it is a blend of two different traditions.
After the 4th century, Christmas had become a popular feast throughout the Church and it was a logical step for it to become a distinct liturgical season. At those times, it was common to begin a time of feasting first with a time of fasting. The Eastern church in particular had a Advent tradition that was more penitential with 40 days of fasting and penance that began on 11 Nov or the feast of St. Martin.
Rome had also started to focus on this time period around the mid-6th century as a response to the 5-day pagan harvest of Saturnalia from 17-23 December. Like most pagan festivals, Saturnalia was characterized by gift exchanges, feasting and excess. So the Church tried to rein that in with prayer, fasting and penance. Interestingly, our tradition of singing the O Antiphons during the Liturgy of the Hours was exactly the same days as Saturnalia. When our Church tries to co opt a pagan festival - we go all the way!
Interestingly, by the end of the 6th century, this approach changed and the penitential theme for Rome faded for a more joyful anticipation and remembrance of Jesus' birth.
Fast forward 400 years to the 10th century, the people had wandered away from the liturgical life of the Church because of abuses and scandal by the leadership. By the end of the 10th century, the Church sought to reform itself by strengthening it's liturgical practices.
In the process, Advent as we know it today began to form with a mixture of joy and penance.
The first Sunday we talk about the endtimes, The second and third Sundays we hear from John the Baptist calling us to repent. Finally, it is on the fourth Sunday that we finally begin the Incarnation story with the Annunciation.
In fact, a stronger penitential theme existed until 1918. Musical instruments were discouraged, weddings were prohibited and the colors were more muted with lots of purple, we did not sing the Glory to God (although we kept the Alleluia). We have since moved away from some of these but kept others.
I know there is a strong movement to go back. To make mass in Latin again. To have the priest face the alter rather than the congregation. To make Advent more penitential. To not sing any songs older than 1598 (OK, I made that last one up).
While I understand that reasoning - I am not a fan of that winding back of the clock. I think that Vatican II did make a lot of good recommendations to bring the people back so that they were part of the celebration of Mass rather than spectators. I would hate to see us lose that. And, honestly, my Latin is not so good.
What I would offer is that there are many Catholic Advent traditions that we should try to use again. Besides the Advent Wreath, we have the Jesse Tree, the Advent House, the Advent Calendar, the Manger (I know you are dying to ask me about that one!), and of course the colors! Who doesn't enjoy seeing their priest wearing Rose colored Vestments!
I think that we should embrace both the joy and the penitential aspect of Advent but it is really a maturing process. As children we can all enjoy and be filled with the joy of anticipating the birth of Christ and Christmas. As we mature in our faith, the hope is that we grow in our understanding. We can still feel the joy of seeing Baby Jesus but now we can also see the eyes of our Savior. We can look at those chubby hands and feet and know what is going to happen.
What is going to happen for us.
It is that understanding that should help us see the penitential aspect of Advent and of our lives.
We are in adventus every season because we do not know when our Lord will return. Are we letting our hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life? Are we living our lives so that we can stand before the Son of man and be judged?
And if we are not, even now it is not too late. You will hear it from John the Baptist later but you don't have to wait till then.
Ready or not - Advent is here!