Advent: History, Mystery and Meaning
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Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
We recently celebrated the "end" of the liturgical Church year in the Western Church with the Feast of Christ the King. It is a triumphant Feast of expectation wherein the faithful are invited to examine our lives in light of the coming return of Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church proclaims to the entire world the truth that Jesus Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the One through whom the world was created, and in whom the world is being re-created, will come again in Glory!
Now, with the First Sunday of Advent, we begin, as a Church, to walk through the liturgical year again. The cycle is a constant reminder to us that every end is a beginning. In and through our liturgical seasons we mark our journey with the great events that constitute the Christian Mystery. As Christians, we know that all time is a gift, given by God. There is no profane time for a Christian because time has been transformed by the Paschal mystery; the Incarnation, Birth, Life, Death, Resurrection, Ascension and Coming Return of Jesus Christ. The eternal entered into history and it, and we, are forever changed through His coming. He has come, He comes and He will come!
Beginning the liturgical year on the first Sunday of Advent has not always been the custom. Human 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 undergone many reforms.In fact, the entire notion of seasons and a liturgical year was not a part of the nascent Church's lived experience. In the very early Church, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was the hermeneutic, the lens, through which Christians viewed not only the entire year, but 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 of participation in the unified Mystery that is the Christian faith 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 still 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 Mystery in their personal lives and to carry forward in time the ongoing redemptive mission of Jesus Christ, the Head, as His Body on earth.
Jesus Christ is not dead. He is alive! He has been raised! He is seated at the right hand of the Father in His Resurrected Body and we participate in the eternal now that is the fullness of the resurrection. Jesus is not a memory to the Christian or to the Christian Church. The liturgical life of His Body on earth must always proclaim, in both word and deed, the truth of the Resurrection. This kind of profound experience of, and belief in, the Resurrection, was at the heart of the early Church's life, witness and worship. It must also be the hallmark of our own participation in the Liturgical year. "Maranatha" was the heart cry of the early Christians. It must also become our own.
Today Advent begins. In a western culture where the influences of Christian traditions are waning, many ask why? It is helpful to know our Liturgical history in order to explain what we do to those who may inquire. But even more importantly, it can help us to enter more fully into the seasonal participation. The very word "Advent" is derived from the Latin words, ad-venio or adventus, which both signify a "coming". This liturgical season in the Church has birthed many customs in Catholic practice and life. These customs, if understood and properly embraced, can help to form a framework for our daily life that can help to bring faith to life.
The celebration of Advent has become a significant part of the pattern of faith, culture and worship that is Catholic Christianity. It is also practiced within many of the Communities, confessions and churches that sprung from the Protestant Reformation. Interestingly, it is now being re-embraced in some of the communities that had once rejected it. Over the next four weeks preceding the great celebration of the Nativity of the Lord Jesus, ("Christ-Mass"), Christians (Catholics and others) are invited to prepare, to "get ready", to make a place for the Lord in our lives and in our homes and to anticipate His coming.
The "liturgical air" will soon be filled with the beautiful "O Antiphons", which are taken from the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures, in the Prophetic and Wisdom Books. They will be sung as a part of the formal "Liturgy of the Hours" beginning seven days before the Vigil of Christmas. These short prayers in the "Liturgy of the Hours", or Breviary, which all clergy, most religious orders, and an increasing numbers of lay men and women use as the structure for daily prayer throughout the western Catholic world, are a part of the treasury that is Catholic life and piety. This liturgy forms a foundation for our faith together and places us in the heart of a Church that stretches back two thousand years and forward to the final coming of the Risen Lord.
As a Deacon of the Church, I will join with priests and Bishops in wearing lavender vestments when I serve at the altar. Lavender is a color that connotes both repentance, and expectation. These two experiences, a call to repentance and an invitation to joyful expectation, reveal the "spirit" of this Liturgical season. Advent is a time to "get ready" and to build up the hope within our hearts for the promised coming of Jesus Christ! We do this by repenting of our sin, renouncing our wrong choices, and emptying ourselves of ourselves so that He can come and take up His Residence within us - and within the Church which is His Body. We receive an extended invitation, through the cycle of readings, prayers, and our own participation in them, to choose to rid our lives of the of the clutter of daily idolatry and renounce the self love that can so easily squeeze God's grace out of our lives
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 can inculcate the "mystery" that is the Christian faith more deeply within our "nitty-gritty" lives in the real world. We thereby build a "way" -a pattern- of daily Christian living with customs, practices, and celebrations intended to enrich the encounter with the Risen Lord that is Christianity. 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 Scriptural 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 to repentance and "preparing the way" for all who live between the first and the final coming of Jesus.These 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 -and expound upon- all the "comings" that St Bernard so insightfully wrote about. The faithful will be invited to experience the extraordinary graces found in this full smorgasbord of sacramental and liturgical services. However, ultimately, it will come down to each person, and each family, accepting the invitation to prepare for the coming of the Lord. God invites, will we respond?
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 seem to fly by. I know that some other Christians see such practices as Advent as "empty ritual"; and perhaps for some, that is what they have become. But for me, celebrating Advent, indeed all the seasons of the Church year, are continual calls back to faith, repentance, relationship with the Lord...to the things that really matter. The ritual of Catholic life provides 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.
The familiar patterns and practices of Catholic faith, life and worship present an opportunity for shaping family life, developing customs and practicing piety, all of which can help us to assimilate the beauty and truth revealed in the coming of the Lord. They invite us to break from the monotony of daily life in order to participate in something bigger than ourselves. They connect us to the One who always comes to those who are prepared. They are, as we used to say more often in Catholic circles, "occasions of grace." However, they must be chosen in faith and practiced in love. They must spring from the reservoir of a true belief in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.
We need to hear this clarion call to "prepare the way for the Lord." The liturgical seasons can become "holy" seasons if they put us more deeply in touch with the One who is the source of all holiness, Jesus Christ. Human beings are going to mark time. We will mark it either with the ordinary stuff of ordinary life or we will mark it as well with the extraordinary things of an extraordinary God, who became one of us so that we could fully participate in the eternal embrace of His Trinitarian communion. When we accept His invitation He comes, sanctifies and transforms our ordinary into the extraordinary.
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So when asked why we celebrate Advent, or, for that matter, any special season of the Church year, I answer quite simply. Of course God has no need of our special seasons, but we do. Advent, like the entire Liturgical year, unfolds as a road, a way, a path for the Christian life and vocation. Jesus Christ has been raised and we are called to live in the light of that truth and illumine the world so that others can find their way home. We are to become like the candles we will light over these few weeks. We live in an intermediate time between the first and the second comings of Jesus Christ. We are changed through the Paschal Mystery. Through the waters of the second birth of baptism, we have been enlisted and empowered to prepare ourselves - and the world- for His coming.
One of my favorite readings in the Liturgy of the Hours during this Advent Season is taken from an Advent homily given by a Franciscan friar in the early part of the second millennium named Bernard of Clairvaux. I conclude this reflection with his inspiring words:
"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."
Let us travel that road together.
Deacon Keith Fournier is a Roman Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond. He is a senior editor for Catholic Online and a Contributing Editor for Traditional Catholic Reflections and Reports.
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