November 23, 2010 // Uncategorized

Greeting Christ as the One who comes

Reflections on the liturgical season of Advent by Msgr. Michael Heintz
The earliest evidence we possess concerning the season of Advent comes from around the 4th century. In Spain and France, Christians celebrated a six-week fast preceding the celebration of Christmas (just as they also practiced a Lenten fast, as we still do today, preceding Easter, though the emphasis of the Advent fast seems to be the inculcation of ascetical discipline rather than as a liturgically-oriented process of preparation for Baptism). A synod held at Saragossa (Spain) in AD 380 reminded the faithful that they should attend church daily from Dec. 17 through Jan. 6, Epiphany.

A century later in France, there is evidence of a three-day per week fast (on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays) beginning on the feast of St. Martin (Nov. 11) and extending to Christmas; this season was frequently referred to as “St. Martin’s Lent.”

St. Gregory the Great (+ AD 604), bishop of Rome, records a cycle of four Sunday celebrations just prior to Christmas — much like our four Sundays of Advent. This indicates the Roman preference for a shorter (four weeks) as opposed to longer (six weeks, as in Spain and parts of France) Advent season. In any case, it seems that these early Christians understood the “heart” or “core” of the Advent season to be the octave preceding Christmas itself (Dec. 17-24).

Recent scholarship has dismissed the overly-facile idea that Christians simply adapted a pagan feast, the “sol invictus,” for their own purposes. The historian of the liturgical year, Thomas Talley, has suggested that, in fact, the Christmas celebration on Dec. 25 quite possibly pre-dated the Constantinian toleration of Christianity, and thus the choice of the date, while later a convenient competitor to the pagan feast, nevertheless does not have its origins in paganism.

Advent, derived from the Latin “adventus,” meaning “coming” or “arrival,” is, of course, more than just a preparation for Christmas. Theologically, there is a two-fold focus to the season of Advent, and this is revealed in the prayers and readings used at Mass and in the Liturgy of the Hours.

For the first three weeks in particular, the focus of the prayers and readings is on the coming or arrival of Christ at the end of time as Judge of the living and the dead as we profess every Sunday in the Creed. We are called to focus on the “advent” of Jesus who comes to bring to completion the kingdom He began with His life and ministry. Often, this eschatological dimension of the season is absorbed or lost entirely in the midst of the frenetic activity of preparing for Christmas.

In most Catholic households, influenced by a secular culture of consumerism and materialism, the “season” of Christmas begins even before the civil holiday of Thanksgiving, with decorations and advertising prematurely proclaiming the coming of the Christmas season.

In fact, many Catholics are unaware of this eschatological focus of early Advent. Like the last few Sundays of Ordinary Time, which helpfully provide a segue to the eschatological component of the Advent season, there is an emphasis on vigilance and the removal of those obstacles — most obviously sin, which impede the believer from such vigilance. The collects and readings are about readiness and reception: readiness to greet Christ and the capacity to receive Him with gladness when He comes. For the believer, it is an excellent opportunity to reflect about the Church’s hope — and perhaps to correct many misconceptions about Catholic teaching on the return of Christ in glory and the fruition of His Kingdom.

Current fascination — even among Catholics — with the “Left Behind” series as well as curiosity about “the Rapture” or “the Tribulation” (dubious concoctions of two late 19th-century evangelicals, J.N. Darby and C.I. Scofield) provide ample warrant for such an approach. The early days of Advent then are an ideal time to reflect upon the Church’s teachings on the last things, in particular the general judgment and, at the same time, to reinforce the perils of any attempt to “read” world events in such a way as to predict the day or the hour.

By the Fourth Sunday of Advent (or on Dec. 17, whichever comes first), the emphasis has clearly shifted. The “advent” we now hear about and pray for is the coming of the Incarnate Son of God at the Nativity, that particular moment in human history when Jesus was born of Mary. We hear in the readings at Mass the prophecies concerning His birth, and the prayers used at Mass reflect this, as well.

In fact, the collects for Mass, particular to each weekday, offer a precis of our faith in Christ’s coming and themselves offer hints for the preacher. December 17-24 provides a particularly intense experience of this Advent focus. In the 7th century, what are now called the O Antiphons were composed for prayer in preparation for the solemn feast of the Nativity at Christmas, and are more popularly known today as the verses of the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

If we rely on the Church’s liturgy (as we should) to provide us with some pointers about how we can live and pray the season of Advent in our own lives, we discover a number of profound themes: preparation, readiness, expectation, joyful hope, a spirit of penitence, reformation of life, and the beauty of the Incarnation.

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