"We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible while the other two are visible. In the first coming He was seen on earth, dwelling among men; ... in the final coming "all flesh will see the salvation of our God and they will look upon Him whom they have pierced". The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In His first coming our Lord came in our flesh and our weakness; in this middle coming He comes in Spirit and in power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and in majesty. Because this coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last." (St. Bernard of Clairveaux)
Advent has begun! Many Catholic families will bring the advent wreath out of storage and set it in a prominent place on the dining room table. As often as practicable over these four weeks preceding Christmas, we will gather as a family, light a candle, recite a prayer and sing together- inviting the coming of the Lord into our lives. So will millions of Christians the world over.
The word "Advent" is derived from the Latin words, "ad-venio" or "adventus", which both signify a coming. It is a liturgical "season" in the Catholic Church and has birthed important customs in Catholic faith and life. Customs that form a framework, a texture that is meant to bring faith to life and form patterns for our daily lives which can move us forward in the Christian life.
The actual celebration of Advent as a season of preparation for Christmas dates back as early as the fourth century. It has grown throughout the history of the Western Church to become a significant part of the pattern of life, faith, culture and worship that is Catholic Christianity.
For four special weeks, preceding the great celebration of the Incarnation, the Nativity of the Lord Jesus, ("Christ-Mass"), many western Christians (Catholics and others) are invited to prepare, to "get ready", to anticipate His coming(s).
Again this year my family will attend the Sunday Vigil Mass and we will sing the ever-familiar hymn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel". That song (and others) will become the backdrop of the season, sticking in our minds individually and collectively. I know the tune will be hummed and do what music does when it is repeated, get down deep into our subconscious. It may even become "annoying"- as music can also become. Even that annoyance, however, gets to the root of Catholic life and faith. It is, as they say in the Internet world, "granular" Christianity, getting down experientially into your bones.
Catholicism is "earthy", "real", "incarnational" Christianity.
Soon the "liturgical air" will be filled with the beautiful "O Antiphons", derived from the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures, in the Prophetic and Wisdom Books, that will be sung as a part of the formal "Liturgy of the Hours" beginning seven days before the Vigil of Christmas.
These short prayers are found in the Liturgy of the Hours, or Breviary, which all clergy, most religious orders, and increasing numbers of lay men and women use as the structure for their daily prayer throughout the western Catholic world.
As a Deacon of the Church, I will wear lavender vestments when I serve at the altar. Lavender is a color that connotes both repentance, and expectation. Therein, displayed in that color, lies the "heart", the "spirit" of the season. It is a time to "get ready" and to build up the hope within our hearts for the promised coming!
Every year, Catholic Christians repeat together-experientially- through our "liturgy" (which means the "work" of worship) the pattern of the Christian life. We walk through the great events of Christian history, corporate and individual, and we seek to inculcate the "mystery" that is the Christian faith, more deeply within our lives in the real world.
We seek to build a "way" -a pattern- of daily Christian living with our customs, practices, and celebrations. During Advent, the Church, as a mother, calls us all to get ready, to clean the house, to set special times aside, so that we will be ready for all of His comings!
The Sacred Scripture texts that we will hear at "Mass" (the Divine Liturgy) will be filled with the great figures, such as John the Baptizer, who embody the call of repentance and "preparing the way" for all who live between the first and the final coming of Jesus.
The Old and New Testament passages will be beautifully juxtaposed in every liturgy and in our formal prayer ("The Liturgy of the Hours") in order to point to all the "comings" as St Bernard so insightfully wrote about.
The faithful will be invited to experience the extraordinary graces found in the full smorgasbord of sacramental and liturgical services. However, ultimately, it will come down to each person, each family, accepting the invitation to prepare for the coming.
As I grow older, I love being a Catholic Christian more and more. I remember reading a newspaper article in an airport many years ago in which a priest wrote that Catholicism was "religion for the long haul." I see the truth of that assertion more as the years fly by.
Oh, I know that some other Christians have come to think that such practices as Advent are "empty ritual"; and perhaps for some, that is what it has become. But for me, it is always a continual call back to faith, repentance...to the things that really matter. The ritual has been like a form into which the freshness of the Spirit can be poured. The familiar pattern presents a framework for shaping family life, customs, and piety.
I know that as life goes on, kids get raised, parents die, grandchildren come... I need to hear the continual call to "prepare the way for the Lord." I need these special times of grace. I need these holy seasons. Unlike my earlier years when I thought I had it all "figured out", I find something quite different has occurred as my hair grayed and I continue on in my life of faith.
I realize how little I know... and how much conversion I need.
The seasons of the Catholic Church and our life together are an extraordinary gift and opportunity. After all, human beings are going to mark time. Period. We will fill it either with ourselves or with the things of God.
Why celebrate Advent? I say because we need it. Bring on the candles, the songs, the colors, and the seasons, bring on the special times, and fill the air with the special smells.... I love it all. Advent is a road, a way, a symbol of the heart of the Christian life and vocation. We live in that intermediate time between the first and the second comings. We are to be changed by the first and to prepare ourselves- and the world- for the second. During the process- He continues to come to those who make themselves ready.
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