Hahn, Scott. Signs of Life, The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Chapter 8, ADVENT AND CHRISTMAS
Christmas is a day and a season that requires no introduction, right? From the day after Halloween, the media and the storefronts relentlessly remind us of the holiday’s imminence. The festival of Jesus’ birth is the reason for the peak sales season in a retailer’s year. Economists monitor it closely and analyze it endlessly as an indicator of the nation’s financial health. And I don’t want to begrudge them a penny of it. Let the Grinches and Scrooges mutter darkly about the commercialization of Christmas. I’ll take it (though not uncritically) as a tribute to Christ that society’s great season of giving is the feast of his birth, even if that giving must be preceded by a season of buying.
I do, however, grieve for the eclipse of Advent; for the Church’s season of spiritual preparation for Christmas has certainly been overwhelmed by the ever-expanding “Christmas shopping season.” Advent is a season we must recover, even if it takes heroic effort. In Advent the liturgy bids us to relive the period of expectation when the world awaited the Savior. We hear the words of the prophets, and we make them our own. The prophets longed for the conditions that Israel could only enjoy upon faithful fulfillment of the covenant. Instead, the people fell inexorably into sin, and so they lost the privileges God had given them: prosperity and happiness in a land flowing with milk and honey. The prophets ached for a messiah, ached for a redeemer, ached for a deliverer. With the birth of Jesus came the fulfillment of all the holy desires of all those many centuries. That is the joy we mark in Christmas, but it’s difficult for us to experience the joy unless we first undergo the longing. That is why the Church leads us first through a season not of shopping, but of longing. Advent is sometimes called “the little Lent,” because it is a season of preparatory fasting and self-denial. It is not as long as “Great Lent.” In fact, it can be as short as twenty-one days. Yet it still should be a time of some small, daily sacrifices. The apostles fasted to prepare for worship in the Lord’s presence (Acts 13:2). We should, too. That empty feeling should serve as a sensible sign of our spiritual need. It is good for us, at least once a year, to recall the pain and poverty of a world without Christ. For centuries now, we have lived in a world shaped by Christian assumptions—Christian notions of right and wrong, of decency, of justice, and of human dignity. Now, as the world forgets Christ, all these natural benefits of his advent are vanishing as well. In post-Christian states, we have seen the notion of human dignity fade to non-existence, followed soon by human rights, beginning with the right to life. In a post-Christian world, we have seen ethnic minorities emerging anew—and violently—to wage brutal separatist wars against their closest cousins. The world is rapidly losing any sense of the transnational family Christ came to inaugurate, the kingdom where Israel and the Gentiles can live together in peace. If we want to hold fast to the good things that came with Christ, then we must first keep a lively remembrance of the difference Christ made—the difference Christmas made. Advent calls us out of our cultural complacency. The Church echoes the prophets, who say: “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion” (Am 6:1), that is, those who have taken God’s extraordinary gifts for granted.
If we are tempted to grumble about a culture that has forgotten Christ, then perhaps we are beginning to sense the longing of the prophets. Christ has come, and yet we await him anew. He has saved us, and yet we still await a day when “he will wipe away every tear … and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore” (Rev 21:4). Christ has come, and he continues to come to us in the Eucharist. But he will come again, at the consummation of history. For this day, even the souls of the just in heaven cry out, “How long?” as did the ancient prophets (see Rev 6:10). Advent reminds us that there are still two dimensions to our salvation: “already” and “not yet.” In Advent we sing the ancient songs of longing and expectation, the “O Antiphons,” because we await our Savior’s coming in fullness, his “plenary parousia,” as the theologians call it. When he comes at the end of time, he will have no more glory than he has now in the Eucharist, but then we’ll see him as he is. The difference will be not with him, but with us: “we know that when he appears … we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2). Thus we hope for that day, and we fast through Advent, because, as we read in the very next line of St. John’s letter: “everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” A blessed Advent, then, is the only true key to a merry Christmas. Christians should never be like the segments of affluent society that a social critic called “souls without longing.” We should know longing habitually, because we have practiced longing at least annually, during Advent. Advent is a time of vigilance, alertness, expectation. We are eager for the arrival of Christ, so we pay close attention to our life of prayer, our moral life, the way we treat others, and the way we express our love for God. We should not allow ourselves to experience “Xmas fatigue” long before December 25 rolls around. We should, if necessary, fast from the radio so that we don’t hear an endless round of misplaced seasonal carols beginning the day after Thanksgiving, or fast from television programming that anticipates Christmas fulfillment during Advent’s waiting. We should also show others that it is possible to buy for Christmas without bowing idolatrously to commercialism. The Church is a refuge from a premature nativity. Catholic churches feel different during Advent (or they should). In the Mass, we eliminate the Gloria, because that is a Christmas song, the chant of the angels at the birth in Bethlehem (Lk 2:14). In fact, choirs and musicians are supposed to refrain from using any Christmas music during Advent liturgies. Hope is the reason for the season, and Jesus Christ is certainly worth the wait. We could not reasonably expect a better Christmas present than Simeon and Anna received during that first octave of Christmas (Lk 2:25–38). They had waited long lives, not merely four weeks. Think, too, of the magi, who had scanned the skies in hope, looking for a sign. We know him “already,” but still “not yet.” So let’s keep our days as we should, looking for signs and then rejoicing in the mystery of the incarnation.
Enjoy the reading and have a great week!