[The following a revised version of a previously published post. – Funky]
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. Last year, I asked 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 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’d heard of Advent before. I’ve been a Christian (or nearly so) my whole life, after all. It’s the season that leads up to Christmas. That’s about as deep as my understanding of it was until last December 5th. 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 had 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 that 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 something? How could r Advent be like Lent?
What is Lent? I’ve always felt that I had a pretty darn good handle on that. It’s a time for 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.
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 of 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 as I can of the Sparkle Season, Saturnalia, Yule, or whatever you want to call the greedy, superficial, and debauched celebrations our culture tries to push on us. 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.