Pastor’s Desk: Preparing the Way of the Lord
Preparing the Way of the Lord
Despite the fact that Hallmark presents its newest line of ornaments as early as every July and begins its “holiday” programing as early as the end of October, the Church’s official preparations for Christmas do not commence until late November/early December each year. The start of the Advent season is at Evening Prayer I, or first vespers, of the First Sunday of Advent – the Sunday closest to the Feast of Saint Andrew (November 30). This year, the First Sunday of Advent is December 3rd, while the Fourth Sunday is December 24th, or Christmas Eve, making the season as short as it possibly can be. (This is something of a liturgical “nightmare” as we try hard to maintain the character of Advent in the Church while also being ready for the start of the Christmas season within a matter of hours after the last Sunday Mass is offered.)
It might surprise some to learn that in the early Church, the only event in the life of our Lord which was commemorated was the weekly and annual celebrations of the Lord’s resurrection, or Easter. Yet we do know that by the year 336 A.D. in Rome there was some celebration marking the birth of Christ. Then by the end of the fourth century this “new” feast we call “Christmas” had spread through much of the Church – especially in the West. The most reliable witness we have to a period of preparations for this celebration of the Incarnation of the Lord dates back to the fifth century. The Bishop of Tours issued regulations for three days of fasting in each of the weeks leading up to December 25th, from the Feast of Saint Martin, November 11. The period of preparations was marked in different ways by the Church in her various regions. By the end of the twelfth century, the liturgy of the Church in Rome had taken on a more penitential character with the familiar violet vestments and the omission of the festive “Gloria.” (The “Gloria” of the Mass had come to be omitted for the same reason the Church had eliminated the “Alleluia” from the Lenten season – so that its presentation at Christmas might have a fresh newness about it.)
There are two characters to the Advent season – as if almost two separate seasons within the one. The days closest to the celebration of Christmas, from December 17th through the 24th, focus on the first coming of Christ as man. The prayers of the Mass remind us that we are about to celebrate that first coming, while the Gospel readings recall for us the events leading up to the birth of Christ. The days prior to December 17th remind us that we believe that Christ will come again in all his glory and that we must be prepared for this day. It is an event to which we look forward with a sense of joyful anticipation.
Practically speaking, we might ask how we should “celebrate” Advent, either personally or in our homes. It is hard to ignore the celebration of “Christmas” that officially kicks off with “Thanksgiving” and sadly ends as soon as we reach December 25th. While we live in the world, our spiritual lives must somehow try not to be “of the world.” Our focus in the Advent season, like any other time of the year, needs to remain “other worldly.”
There should be some penitential character to the way in which we mark the season. The violet vestments worn by the priest during the season remind us that the Church considers this a penitential season. Yet the penitential character of this season is somewhat different than that of the Lenten season. There is a joyful sense of anticipation associated with both “comings” which we await: that celebration of the birth of Christ, and his coming in glory at the end of the world. Perhaps we can consider some sort of extra fasting during the season – a special sacrifice considering all the holiday baking being done in peoples’ homes. Maybe we can carve out extra time in prayer each day or add a weekday Mass to our regular routine. The Sacrament of Penance should have a place in our preparations, as well. Our Lord reminds us how blessed those will be who are found watchful and ready at his coming.
In our homes we should find ways to maintain the religious significance of what we are preparing to celebrate. How beautifully the Advent carol reminds us of the reason for which we “trim the hearth and set the table!” Advent wreaths and calendars are beautiful traditions in the home to capture the “spirit of waiting” for young children. At Saint Theresa we have followed the tradition of inviting families to bring the figure of the infant Christ to church on the Sunday preceding Christmas so that the priest may bless these images of the Newborn King. The figure is then placed in the crèche once the Christmas season has begun in earnest.
Just as we need to try to hold off on our celebration of Christmas until the season truly begins, so we need to maintain the spirit of the season throughout. As mentioned earlier, the secular world turns away from Christmas almost as soon as the calendar reaches December 26th. Yet the Church celebrates all the way through the Solemnity of the Epiphany and the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. So what if you’re last on the block to take the tree down? In fact, there are some who maintain the Christmas tree in the home until the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on February 2nd. (Of course, for practical safety reasons, it might not be wise to keep a fresh tree up this long.)
May we strive to preserve the integrity of the Advent and Christmas seasons in our hearts and in our homes. May we truly anticipate the coming of the Lord with renewed hearts — and a renewed sense of joy in our lives. May the Lord find us watchful and ready when he comes – whether as tiny Infant, under the appearance of simple bread, in the least of our brothers and sisters, or in all his glory!