Christmas is coming! A few people I know think that the Church is a bit mean by not encouraging or even allowing Christmas Carols and hymns in our Liturgy before the Eve of 25th December. Although I am one of the ‘non-allowers’ I have a sneaking sympathy for them. I love Christmas Carols and Christmas Music and love the build up to it, although more when I was younger than now. And I don’t really blame the shops or the culture!
That said, we do in Advent have Carol Concerts from local schools and organisations (even our own Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols) as they are outside the liturgy of the Church and many of these organisations will have broken up or be unable to organise these specialities which take place outside or before the actual season of Christmas.
For many people, Christmas begins some time in December or even November and by the end of Christmas Day – or perhaps Boxing Day – it is all over. For the Church it is different.
Jesus becoming a human being, incarnated, or God making Himself flesh, begins at the Annunciation to Mary and the world, Mary’s conception by the Holy Spirit in her body of the infant foetus of the Lord. (Feast of the Annunciation 25th March, nine months before Christmas). Christmas is the Nativity, the giving birth.
Christmas actually begins after sunset on the 24th December and ends with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord on Sunday 12th January 2020 although in some churches by custom the Crib may remain until Sunday February 2nd the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (The Light to lighten the Gentiles commonly called Candlemas, when in the past all the candles for use in Church for the coming year were blessed).
I personally feel the crib is ignobly and irreverently ignored by most folk after Epiphany (Sunday 5th January 2020) although some think the Magi figures should be on show for more than a day or two! But the Magi figures can be on display in the Church, starting at a distant spot and moving ever closer towards the Crib from Christmas Midnight. The Crib should be a place of prayer and quiet contemplation of the Incarnation and birth of Jesus our Lord and God.
So we begin the wonderful Season of Advent on Sunday 1st December 2019, the beginning of the Church’s New Liturgical Year (Sunday Cycle Year A, Weekdays Year 2). The word “advent,” from the Latin adventus (Greek parousia), means “coming” or “arrival.” The Advent Season is focused on the anticipating the arrival of Jesus as Messiah (Christ or King).
The worship, scripture readings, and prayers not only prepare us spiritually for Christmas (his first coming), but also for his eventual second coming. This is why the Bible readings during Advent include both Old Testament passages related to the expected Messiah, and New Testament passages concerning Jesus’ second coming as judge of all.
Also, passages about John the Baptist, the precursor who prepared the way for the Messiah, are read. All of these themes are present in our worship during Advent.
The Advent Wreath with its five candles (one for each Sunday, the third rose coloured one for ‘Gaudete’ or ‘rejoice’ Sunday, each Sunday reflecting in turn 1)The Patriarchs, The Prophets, John Baptist, The Virgin Mary and on Christmas Day, the white candle for Jesus the Christ and the associated liturgies keep us on track.
Advent Calendars (of the Christian sort), but more especially the ‘Jesse Tree’ helps us connect the custom of decorating Christmas trees to the events leading to Jesus’ birth.
The Jesse tree is named from Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot shall come out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Jesse was the father of King David. We adorn a Jesse tree with illustrated ornaments that represent the people, prophesies, and events leading up to the birth of Jesus.
The ornaments of the Jesse tree tell the story of God in the Old Testament, connecting the Advent season with the faithfulness of God across four thousand years of history. These are devotional items that remind and help us to keep our feet on the ground and our eyes to heaven as we long for Christmas and the Second Coming of the Lord.
A Presbyterian Minister from the USA has written “During my first Advent at Irvine Presbyterian Church, I did find it odd to sing relatively few Christmas carols before Christmas Eve. And I did find much of the Advent music to be unfamiliar. We used the Advent wreath in worship, with its expressions of expectation and hope. Though I missed some of what I had always associated with the build up to Christmas, I found that Advent did indeed heighten my yearning for the coming of Christ, and it did indeed help me to experience Christmas in a deeper way”.
He also said “First, I found that observing Advent enriched my celebration of Christmas. Taking four weeks to focus on the hope of Christ’s coming made me much more joyful when I finally got to celebrate it. The more I got in touch with my need for a Saviour, the more I rejoiced at the Saviour’s birth”.
We may be able to control our own personal practices and even our parish culture, but we will never be able to control how other people observe the weeks leading up to Christmas. We can ensure that we omit the Gloria at Mass during Advent (except for solemnities, weddings, and confirmations), but people will still sing and play Christmas songs in their households and social gatherings.
No matter how long you refrain from putting up your own Christmas tree, many others will have theirs fully decorated in November! And no amount of preaching will convince most people that they should be spending more time in quiet prayer than in shopping for gifts and going to Christmas parties.
As much as we want all Christians to keep prayerful, sober watch in anticipation of the coming of the Lord, we cannot become ‘Advent police’, because the exhortation to vigilance and love goes both ways.
We, too, must be vigilant that our behaviour and attitudes help us with ‘increasing [our] love and make [us] love one another and the whole human race’ (1 Thess 3:12).
For many Hispanic and Asian communities, Advent is a time of prayer and parties, of joyful music and quiet contemplation. There is a beautiful grace, too, in this kind of waiting for the day of the Lord.
As those who help shape the unique spirit of Advent in our communities, let us help one another be attentive to God’s presence all around us so that our hearts may not become ‘coarsened with the cares of life’.
Let’s look forward to a happy and joyful Christmas, with the sure and certain expectation of the Lord’s Second Coming in Glory.
With my love and prayers
Fr. Ray Whelan