Discovering a Season

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. I get so excited that I start listening
to my Christmas music at the beginning of November, much to the surprise and chagrin
of some of my loved ones. This year, I’ve been asking myself what I’ve been getting
excited about. Is it the celebration of Christ’s birth? I wish I could say so, but
the truth is that I’ve been enamored with the secular trappings of the season. Decorating
the Christmas tree, baking cookies, singing catchy tunes, visiting relatives, watching
classic movies, giving and receiving gifts (sadly, mostly the latter), playing in
the snow (in those few lucky winters), and other generally faith-free activities
have been Christmas’ raison d’etre for me.

Realizing this has not been a pleasant experience for me. At first, I was merely
depressed at the commercialization of the holiday, and my contributions to it, as
I’ve mentioned in a previous post.
As I dealt with what I felt Christmas shouldn’t be, it occurred to me that I had
only a vague idea of what it should be. We’ve all heard “Jesus is the reason
for the season” so many times that it’s become cliche. It’s a bit preachy,
but it’s based on a solid principle. Or is it? There’s an assumption built into
that phrase that the whole season, from early December to New Year’s Eve is Christmas.
Most of the popular carols bear witness to this assumption. I only recently realized
how wrong this is, at least for those of Christian faith. It finally dawned on me
that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” refers to dates after December
25!

Sure, I’ve heard of Advent before. I’ve been a Christian (or nearly so) my whole
life. It’s the season that leads up to Christmas. That’s about as deep as my understanding
of it was until this Sunday. I remember my family having an Advent calendar when
I was a kid. A cute little mouse with a Santa hat was moved each day across a background
of snow, holly, and other popular symbols. It only really served to enhance the
excitement of anticipating the opening of presents on Christmas morning. It was
another warm fuzzy to be experienced during the holly-jolly, peace on earth, good
will to all, consume until it hurts season. It never dawned on me that the season
wasn’t just a pre-game show before the big game of gift-giving and partying.

As I sat in the choir loft on Sunday, listening to the readings and the homily and
reflecting on the songs we sang, I was struck by a feeling of deja vu. I felt like
I was at a mass during Lent. How could that be? Was I misunderstanding Lent or Advent?

What is Lent? I’ve always felt that I had a pretty darn good handle on that. It’s
a time of penance as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s salvific act, the Paschal
Mystery. It starts with Ash Wednesday, commonly the most heavily attended mass all
year, despite not being a holy day of obligation. We receive ashes on our foreheads
as a reminder of our mortality. For the next 40 days we fast and/or abstain from
meat as acts of mortification. We are to die to this world. We purify ourselves
in anticipation of the eternal sacrifice we cannot offer for ourselves, the redemption
secured by Christ. Then we rejoice as we celebrate our Lord’s resurrection. He was
born again into everlasting life and by doing so He obtained the same for us, if
we follow Him faithfully.

If you’re wondering why I’ve gone to the trouble of describing Lent, a season several
months away, imagine how I felt as these thoughts came to me during the mass for
the second Sunday of Advent. In the gospel reading for all three liturgical cycles,
we hear of John baptizing people in the Jordan River. What for? Repentance. He was
preparing people for the spiritual rebirth that Christ would bring. He lived an
ascetic life. He renounced worldliness and practiced mortification to purify himself
and called people to repent. Sound familiar? It should.

This came as a bit of a shock to me. Advent is to Lent and Christmas is to Easter.
Advent should be a time of contemplation and penance. Celebration should be reserved
for the end of the season. There’s plenty of time to celebrate during the days from
Christmas Day until Epiphany.

This alone gave me a lot to think about, but then I found out there’s more. We’re
not just ritually recalling the world “in sin and error pining”, as the
song says, in hope and longing for a savior, any more than Lent is only about recalling
events leading to the crucifixion and resurrection. During Lent, we should anticipate
our own death and resurrection. During Advent, we should recall that in baptism
we die to sin and are reborn into the Mystical Body of Christ. Both holidays remind
us that Christ will come again. Christmas and Easter are intimately linked.

This relationship was further impressed on me as I participated in my goddaughter’s
baptism later that day. As we renewed our baptismal vows, I thought of the practice
of blessing ourselves with holy water as we enter a church. We do so to remind ourselves
of our baptismal vows and to prepare ourselves for the theophany of Christ’s presence
in the Eucharist. Likewise, we fast prior to receiving that presence into our bodies.
What a blessing God has given us through the Church! Every mass is an echo advent
and lent consummated with an echo of Christmas and Easter.

So what does this all mean for my celebration of Christmas? It means I’m not waiting
for the new civil year to make resolutions. Advent marks the start of a new liturgical
year.

I’m going to be more selective about what music I listen to and what decorations
I put up before Christmas. My wife and I are slowly adding ornaments to our tree
and adding appropriate figures to our manger scene as the season progresses. I’m
going to try to pray more and read more Scripture (which I should be doing anyway).
I’m going to try to shut out as much of the Sparkle Season, Saturnalia, Yule, or
whatever you want to call the greedy, superficial, and debauched celebrations our
culture tries to push on me. When I have children, hopefully my wife and I will
be able to raise them to respect that there is “a time for every affair under
heaven”, including time for penance and reflection. Celebration has its time
and purposes. Gift-giving, if not done selfishly, need not be purged from Christmas.
After all, God gave us the greatest gift of all in the person of His only begotten
Son, Jesus Christ. My presents, if I can afford any, will be charitable donations,
made by hand, or purchased to fill a need. I’ll sincerely try to avoid frivolities,
for myself and for others. My hope is that opening gifts will be ever more special
for my family than it ever was in my childhood. Ever notice how doing without something
for a time makes you more appreciative for it? Imagine how special Christmas morning
will be after Christmas’ Lent.

Comments 9

  1. Steve N wrote:

    You contribute such nice thoughts, Steve. Are you sure you don’t want to guest blog from time to time?

    Huh? I did respond via personal email, no? Wherein, I said: “Hey big boy! I’ve been thinking of you…” DOH!!! Not that one. I mean wherein I said that I’d like to, I just need to think of something to say…. Well I’m thinkin’ I’m thinkin’

    Cheers!

    Posted 08 Dec 2004 at 1:00 pm
  2. Jerry Nora wrote:

    I started to keep the entire 12 days of Christmas in mind a few years ago. I remember that the end of Dec. 25 was such a bummer–sort of a “that was it?” response as the last of the uncles filter out. 24 hours did not seem adequate to contain Christmas. But behold! The Church came to the same conclusion many years ago, and I was happy to observe the Christmas Octave (the week proceeding Christmas) and the twelve days up till the Epiphany. Good stuff.

    My wife and I have found out about an awesome Franciscan shrine near my parents’ place (I’ve known of it for some time, but I was vague on its liturgical offerings till recently) that has 24/7 adoration and daily Mass and also daily Matins, Sext, and Vespers. Pretty frickin’ cool, huh? My parents’ parish does have daily Mass, but it tends to be quite early. The shrine has Mass at noon. My dad is interested in going, and I’ll try to invite a friend who has been getting bogged down spirituallly, it seems. Good stuff!

    Posted 07 Dec 2004 at 12:22 am
  3. Steve N wrote:

    In keeping with this theme, my Bro-in-Law Smedley blogged recent post in keeping with your Green Chri$sma$ post. To the former post I added some thots on the general subject of poverty and our habit (as Christians, and as Americans) of ignoring it. So I’ll not repeat them here…

    But last Sunday (the 1st Sunday of the month) was Communion in our Church (as Evangelicals, we don’t have it every service I’m sorry to say)–the only Communion observed by us during the Advent season. During the homily (we call it a “sermon”), I formed a few thougts that would like to share:

    In a world at war, then as now, Jesus was born the Prince of Peace. What peace? Peace through his blood–blood that brought God and man together, Jew and Gentile together, man and woman together, father and child, black and white, heck, even Catholic and Protestant. And this blood spilled and this body broken we celebrate and proclaim thru this sacrament.

    In this season where we celebrate the birth of a Savior, we glimpse the beginning, the 1st step, of the kenosis–the “emptying” of Christ outlined in Philippians 2. Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but emptied himself and took on the form of a man, the form of a servant, a servant obedient unto death, obedient even unto death on a cross.

    So you wanna see peace? Look beyond the baby in the manger. Look to the grown man. See the finished work–hands that formed the universe, surrendered to iron nails–the very element that, in its ionic form, makes blood (and wine??) red. There is your peace. Here, at this table, is your peace.

    Cheers!

    Posted 07 Dec 2004 at 5:00 am
  4. Michael Gallaugher wrote:

    It appears that you’re not in bad shape Eric. You’ve put more thought and reflection into this Christmas than I have.

    Posted 07 Dec 2004 at 7:14 pm
  5. Steve N wrote:

    Oh! And on the subject of lent, is it true that meat is universally given up? Are other things also given up in addition or instead of meat (red or otherwise).

    We (my family) have kept the principle of lent for the past couple years and have found doing so a profound spiritual blessing. Alas this practice has not yet “caught on” in our Evangelical congregation, but we’re working on it… We give up one or two things as a whole family and then individuals can give up other things. This leads to interesting dinner-table discussions because the children love to suggest giving up broccoli or some other thing they hate.

    Last year we gave up broadcast TV (except on Sundays) for lent and it led to a new awakening in song-writing for me–haven’t done much since tho’.

    Do you guys give up other stuff too? This seems to me to be an excellent way to practice a whole host of spiritual disciplines.

    Later!

    Posted 07 Dec 2004 at 5:11 am
  6. Jerry Nora wrote:

    Steve, meat (aside from fish or shellfish) is given up on the Fridays of Lent. People should make other ascetical practices for the season as a whole, but that is up to the individual or the family.

    Posted 07 Dec 2004 at 1:35 pm
  7. Jerry Nora wrote:

    Wine’s red due to flavenoids, which are complex organic compounds that at least in some forms have anti-oxidant properties. Wine, to my knowledge, does not have any significant iron content. Guinness, on the other hand, does…

    Posted 07 Dec 2004 at 5:04 am
  8. Andrea Okerholm wrote:

    Yes, this is why Gaudete (3rd) Sunday is so joyous, because the previous two weeks are weeks of repentance.

    Posted 07 Dec 2004 at 6:16 am
  9. Funky Dung wrote:

    You contribute such nice thoughts, Steve. Are you sure you don’t want to guest blog from time to time?

    Posted 07 Dec 2004 at 3:17 pm

Trackbacks & Pingbacks 1

  1. From The Sin of Nice @ Ales Rarus on 10 Nov 2006 at 3:19 pm

    […] December 9th, 2004 by Steve Recently, the proprietor of this blogspace, Mr. Funky Dung, commented about the "nice things" I say here from time to time. Though I am reasonably certain that Mr. Dung intended it as a compliment, perhaps in the vein of "nice arse kicking" or "nice proof of Fermat's Last Theorem," part of me was quite taken aback [I meant it in the sense of "nice reasoning" or "well thought out response" or "good points". – Funky] You see, "nice" has been registered as a complaint leveled against Evangelicaldom in recent years. And as one of the token Evangelicals in these blogparts, I must confess that I take the criticism to be all too often valid. I am therefore probably more sensitive to occurrences of this word that most folks, not having been accused of the sin of nice, use in a completely innocent, even complimentary, way. Let me 'splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up… […]

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