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In a western culture where the influence of Christianity is waning, people often ask why Catholic Christians, and some other Christians, celebrate Advent. It is helpful to know our history in order to explain what we do to those who may inquire. But even more importantly, it can help us enter more fully into the season and experience the grace it offers.
The word Advent is derived from a Latin root, ad-venio or adventus, which both entail a reaching out and preparing for a coming. This liturgical season of Advent has birthed many customs in Catholic practice and piety. These customs, if understood and embraced, can help inform a pattern of life, a culture, which in turn can help build a framework for living our daily lives as Christians.
However, that depends upon us and the choices we make.
After all, the Church is not some-thing but Some-One, the Body of Jesus Christ, and we are members of that Body. (1 Cor. 12) Advent is a time when we are invited to get ready for His Coming(s). We are exhorted to repent of our sin, renounce our wrong choices, turn away from disordered passions, curb inordinate appetites and empty ourselves of ourselves – so that Jesus Christ can come and take up His Residence within us – and within the Church, which is His Body.
Through the Advent cycle of readings, prayers, and practices of piety – and our willing and free participation in them – we can make the choice to rid our lives of daily idolatry and renounce the self-love that can squeeze God’s grace out of our lived experiences. The Lord wants us to live in an ongoing encounter with Him. He does not place impediments in the way of our experience of His grace, we do.
The word Liturgy is an anglicized rendering of a Greek word which means public work of worship. During Advent, and during all of the Liturgical seasons of the Church year, we walk through the great events of Christian history for a reason. They are not some form of vain repetition, but can help us to inculcate the mysteries of the Christian faith into our daily lives.
We are invited to build a pattern of Christian living, complete with customs, practices, and celebrations, which promotes an ongoing encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. We are to consciously become a part of the work of the Church in building a Christian culture which reaches out to others to bring them into a relationship with God and His loving plan.
During Advent, the Church, as a mother, calls us to clean the house within and set special times aside for increased prayer and worship. Why do we do this? So that we will be more ready for all of His comings by having the clarity of living faith to recognize his visitations! And, as a teacher, the Church also instructs us on the meaning of the Christian life, vocation and mission.
The Biblical texts that we hear at Holy Mass are filled with great figures, such as John the Baptizer and Mary the Mother of the Lord, who are examples for each one if us. They both embodied the call which we all share to say “Yes” to the Lord and take our place in preparing the way for all who live between the first and the final coming of Jesus.
The Old and New Testament passages, along with the inspired readings found in the Liturgy of the Hours, the formal prayer of the Church, expound upon the meaning and implications of all of the comings of the Lord. We are invited to receive the graces offered in the full smorgasbord of sacramental and liturgical services. However, it comes down to each person, and each family, accepting the invitation. God always invites. Will we respond?
When I was a young man, I read a newspaper article while in an airport in which a priest wrote that Catholicism was what he called “Christianity for the long haul”. I have come to see the truth of that assertion as the years have passed. I know that some other Christians see practices such as those in Advent, as empty ritual; and perhaps for some, that is what they have become. But not for me. As I grow older, these practices are a treasure to be discovered afresh – and a continuing invitation to begin again.
Celebrating Advent calls us to living faith, repentance, and a renewed relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Over the four weeks preceding the great celebration of the Nativity of the Lord Jesus, (Christ-Mass), we are invited to prepare, to get ready, and to make a place for the Lord in our lives and in our homes. We are reminded that we should live as though He is coming – because He is.
The Catholic way of life can provide a form into which the freshness of the Spirit can be poured again and again. I remember an old Pentecostal minister once telling me when I was twenty-one years old “Son, we get filled with the Spirit, but then we leak”. So we do. We need to be re-filled with the Holy Spirit. I know that I certainly do.
The liturgical seasons and their practices present an opportunity for shaping family life and developing customs which can help us to assimilate the beauty and truth revealed in the comings of the Lord. They can also become a witness of His living presence to a world waiting to be born again. They help us to break from the monotony of a secularized life and participate in something bigger than ourselves. They connect us to the One who always comes – to those who make the ongoing choice to invite Him in.
Beginning the liturgical year on the first Sunday of Advent has not always been the custom. History reveals an inability to even agree on the beginning of a civil year. As for a liturgical year, it is the product of an evolution that has involved numerous reforms as the Church moved forward in history. In fact, the entire notion of seasons and a liturgical year, at least as we currently know them, was not a part of the nascent Church’s lived experience. In the very early Church, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was the lens through which Christians viewed their entire lives.
It was only as the Church began to spread – and the imminent return of the Lord Jesus began to be understood in a different way – that liturgical seasons began to evolve. Even then, there was a wide variance based upon local customs. By the second half of the fourth century we find the earliest record of a protracted and specific period of a liturgical preparation for Christmas. Its length, emphasis and the practices related to its observance underwent development.
Indeed, they continue to undergo development in our own day as the Church exhorts and guides the faithful to live out the full implications of the Christian Mysteries and to carry forward in time the ongoing work of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is not just a memory to the Christian with living faith. He is alive in our midst and living His Life in and through His Body, the Church, of which we are members.
The redemptive mission of the Lord Jesus continues until He returns. As Christians, we are invited into the heart of that great Adventure. The same root word from which we derive the word Advent is also the root of the word Adventure. The Christian life, vocation and mission is meant to be an adventure. Advent is not some rote, dead custom from the past. Rather, when it is embraced by Christians who are alive in Jesus Christ, it is a gift.
Who needs Advent? I do.