First Sunday in Advent – December 3, 2006 – Blessed Sacrament
With this first Sunday in Advent we begin today a new liturgical year. The Church thus follows a different rhythm of seasons than does the secular calendar. Advent is a season with its own distinctive character, but in the last ten or twenty years, it has become increasingly difficult to preserve that character. Now even before Thanksgiving we begin to be inundated with Christmas music, as if the Christmas season were the weeks before the feast and ended on the feast rather than beginning with it. The famous twelve days of Christmas were not, as I once heard a newscaster say, the last twelve shopping days before Christmas, but the period of time that runs between Christmas and the feast of the Epiphany which is (or ought to be) celebrated on January 6th. There were distinctive Advent hymns, and a pastor did not have to fear being upbraided because Christmas carols weren’t being sung in his church during Advent!
You might be interested in the origin of the Advent season. Originally the Church really celebrated only one great feast, the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Christ. In the middle of the fourth century, however, we began to commemorate the birth of Christ, in Rome on December 25th and in Egypt on January 6th. One reason for choosing those dates was to have a feast to counteract one of the last pagan feasts to retain a hold on the popular imagination, the feast of the Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun-god whose rebirth was considered to begin as the days grew longer after the winter solstice. That is why the Christmas liturgy is so full of sun- and light-imagery.
In time a season of preparation for Christmas began to be practiced. At times it had a penitential character similar to that of Lent, one way to prepare oneself to celebrate the feast worthily. At other times it was more an anticipation of a glorious arrival, which was the original meaning of the word adventus, which referred to the arrival of the Roman Emperor in one of his provinces. This adventus of Christ was identified either with Christ’s birth in order to accomplish his victory over sin and death or with his triumphal return at the end of time.
The season is rich in the imagery of promise and anticipation, with Isaiah the prophet and John the Baptist the great heralds. It is a season of quiet expectation, with hope, that much-neglected virtue, most emphasized. Today’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah is an example of this link between promise and expectation or hope:
The days are coming, says the LORD,
when I will fulfill the promise
I made to the house of Israel and Judah.
In those days, in that time,
I will raise up for David a just shoot ;
he shall do what is right and just in the land.
In those days Judah shall be safe
and Jerusalem shall dwell secure;
this is what they shall call her:
“The LORD our justice.”
The context of this prophecy is Israel’s return from its exile in Babylon, the restoration of the people to their own land. Early Christians understood this and similar passages, especially in the book of Isaiah, as having been fulfilled in Christ, “the righteous shoot” who repairs our relationship with God; but the prophetical words can also be understood as referring to the final and perfect fulfilment when Jerusalem, the vision of peace, will be utterly secure in the knowledge and love of God in the Kingdom.
Perhaps we might make it an occasion for inquiring how much that virtue of hope is part of our personal Christian lives. Are there things to which we look forward? For ourselves, for our nation, for our Church? What is there for which we hope? Do we hope for anything? Are there addictions, literal and metaphorical, that we could hope to be freed of? Must we remain always what we are now? Do we consider that God might not be through with us yet? That God might make possible a better self than I am now, a more generous self, a freer self?
Advent can also be a time for considering what we will be celebrating on Christmas. It is not a generic holiday, but a quite precise honoring in faith of God’s great love for us in Jesus Christ. The traditional Christmas carols are not sentimental: they express and evoke sentiments, yes, but thoughts, too, and feelings that are prompted by the rich truths of what God has done and been in Christ. It is no small claim that Christians make about Christ, and four weeks are not too many for getting our minds and hearts ready to celebrate it.