Advent—that peculiar liturgical season of 22-27 days that no one can quite wrap their minds around. Between a kickoff weekend that concurs with Thanksgiving hangover, football, a befuddled Catholic liturgical calendar, foggy and repetitive seasonal preaching, hyper liturgical preparations for Christmas musical grandeur, overemphasis upon children’s catechetics, and a secular culture which begins Christmas observance the day after Halloween, Advent comes limping home on December 24 like a bedraggled Confederate soldier from Appomattox. Our present-day observance and emphases during Advent would stun our ancestors of Christianity past who understood Advent as a season of apocalyptic terror, immersion in hopeless evil, and kinetic hope in the impossible, an intrusive God who will turn a corrupt world upside down on its ear in a final victorious arrival.
I paid special attention to this year’s Advent experience as I observed it, beginning on the First Sunday [or Saturday night, to be more accurate] when I pulled myself away from those TV classic college football rivalry games to begin my Advent observance, which in 2022 went the “full Monty” of 27 days. The Gospel of the First Sunday of Advent [Cycle A] does not describe Mary and Joseph packing for Bethlehem, or anywhere for that matter. Instead, it is Matthew 24: 37-44:
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘As it was in Noah’s day, so will it be when the Son of Man comes. For in those days before the Flood people were eating, drinking, taking wives, taking husbands, right up to the day Noah went into the ark, and they suspected nothing till the Flood came and swept all away. It will be like this when the Son of Man comes. Then of two men in the fields one is taken, one left; of two women at the millstone grinding, one is taken, one left.
‘So, stay awake, because you do not know the day when your master is coming. You may be quite sure of this, that if the householder had known at what time of the night the burglar would come, he would have stayed awake and would not have allowed anyone to break through the wall of his house. Therefore, you too must stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’
As I sat there on Saturday night waiting to be swept up in the sermon into the redemptive drama of the end times, judgment, and the dramatic appearance of Jesus, I was surprised, to say the least, to hear that the evening’s sermon would be the first of a four-week series on explaining the Mass and the importance of the Eucharist, in connection with the U.S. Bishops’ Campaign on catechizing the Blessed Sacrament. Actually, that first sermon wasn’t too bad, and its conclusion on Christmas Eve, addressed to those many Catholics in the seats who only celebrate Eucharist on Christmas, was quite good. Many people applauded. However, as I grumbled to my wife in the car after the First Advent Sunday, “Thirty-four Sundays in Ordinary Time, and we have to erase Advent for a catechetical series that, quite frankly, shortchanges both the season and the Scriptures of the Mass.” [For the record, my resolution to stop post-Mass grumbling while weaving through traffic is holding up well, though.]
I’m not upset with the homilist, to be clear. My discouragement is over the massive pastoral and catechetical breakdown of the Church’s understanding and observance of Advent. Sometimes the Vatican itself is the worst offender. The First Sunday of Advent is the beginning of the Church’s Liturgical Year, and any changes in liturgical practice are instituted on that Sunday. The English translation of the Mass we use today was authorized for use in the United States on the First Sunday of Advent, 2011. The story goes that the American bishops asked for more time, and the authorities said OK, you can roll it out on Ash Wednesday 2012—knowing full well that publishing houses which produce annual missalettes and pastors paying the freight would raise a howl—if two sets of books had to be published and purchased in the same liturgical year. So I am told.
But there are other Advent-busters so embedded in our parish life that we are blissfully unaware of them. This came home to me in a variety of ways recently. On December 24, my little sister was in the eye of the disastrous blizzard that paralyzed Erie County, New York. I called her up to check in and she reported everyone was safe and sound, the house was full of food, heat, and power. But she expressed sadness that the blizzard and driving ban had erased any hope that the parish’s Christmas choir would be able to attend Midnight Mass, which would be livestreamed instead. Just about her entire family was involved in the choir, and they had been practicing for the Christmas Mass for months.
As it turns out, I had been seeing a number of Facebook posts on various religious education websites about parish Christmas choirs and pageants around the country, specifically the amount of time and energy devoted to Christmas performances at the expense of Advent observance, or even the normal parish functions of December. This is a good example of the genre:
“This is my first year as a DRE [Director of Religious Education] …so I am using the schedule for the year set by the past DRE. We haven't had regular classes since November 9! November 16 was scheduled as a PRE Mass, then the 23rd was off, and Nov 30, Dec 14, and Dec 21 are pageant rehearsals. Dec 7 was also off so people could attend the Vigil Mass for Imm. Conc. [Feast of the Immaculate Conception] Kids who aren't in the pageant (who travel for Christmas or who just don't want to be in it) receive no religious education from November 9 to January 18. Is this normal? How do you balance the Christmas pageant not taking over your entire program? How can I suggest a change for next year in a parish that is all about tradition and resistant to any change?”
One of the responses was less than encouraging:
“We have rehearsals on Saturday mornings and classes on Sunday mornings. Parents sign up separately and the play is completely optional. Our final class (Dec 18th this year) is replaced by the play and a party - snacks and Christmas themed crafts.” Aside from celebrating Christmas in the teeth of Advent, as happened here, it is a curious thing that Catholic pulpits and publications rail against the frantic pace of society on the days preceding Christmas. However, often Catholic parishes are among the worst offenders in succumbing to the secular culture. To make matters worse, the unique and awesome mystery of Advent as a stand-alone season gets lost in the shuffle.
My wife was a Catholic school principal for 25 years, including four years when I was the pastor of her parish. She understood the Catholic principal’s role as the senior officer of faith formation for the school, and she staunchly defended the unique theological identity of Advent and instructed her staff to “go thou and do likewise.” It was a significant challenge for her to ward off the countless demands for class Christmas parties, decorations, and the like. If my memory is correct—I am going back over thirty years—one solution to the problem was the use of purple/blue Advent motifs on the school property. In any event, the austerity and gravity of Advent was preserved.
There is another factor which the Church has never quite worked out in the quest to celebrate Advent in a focused way: the sheer number of major feasts—independent of the Advent Season—which fall between November 28 and December 24. Those of you who attend daily Mass and/or pray the Liturgy of the Hours are probably acutely aware of this abundance of riches.
Here is the list of saints and observances in the official Church calendar for the United States during the Advent Season, November 28-December 23:
St. Andrew, Apostle
St. Francis Xavier, Missionary to the East
St. Ambrose, Doctor of the Church
The Immaculate Conception of Mary
St. Juan Diego of Mexico
Our Lady of Loreto
Our Lady of Guadalupe
St. Lucy, Martyr
St. John of the Cross, Doctor of the Church
St. Peter Canisius, Doctor of the Church
St. John Kanty
[Consider that the 1970 reform of the Mass removed the December feasts of St. Bibiana, St. Barbara, St. Sabbas. St. Melchiades, St. Damasus, and St. Eusebius from the calendar and transferred St. Peter Chrysologus, a Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas the Apostle, and St. Frances Cabrini to other dates in the year. I’m glad I never disposed of my 1958 daily missal; it is invaluable as a historical resource.]
[Also, consider this year’s cavalcade of feasts during Christmas week: Christmas Day, St Stephen the First Martyr, St. John the Apostle, the Holy Innocents, St. Thomas Becket, The Holy Family, St. Sylvester.]
As early as I can remember learning about the Mass, I was always puzzled about the Sunday Advent Gospels, particularly the Gospel of the First Sunday [Luke 21: 25-33, read annually in the years before 1970], which speaks of “men fainting for fear and for expectation of the things that are coming on the world.” I had heard in school and in the pulpit that Advent was a time of preparing for Christmas, a cheery time despite the purple vestments. A Catholic was encouraged to go to confession to get ready for Christmas. In truth, there was a convenient overlap between December good behavior of impressing Baby Jesus and covering my bets with Santa Claus. Where the Advent Masses were concerned, I was too young to understand the term “apocalyptic” but all the same I sensed a disconnect between this vivid Gospel text and the delicious anticipation of cultural Christmas I was experiencing.
But we are adults now, old enough to face the hard reality of Advent’s message. The Gospels of the First Sunday of Advent [Years A, B, and C] are the keynotes of the Advent observance. Advent is not a “soft Lent.” As theologian Fleming Rutledge [1937-] puts it, “Advent is not for the faint of heart. As the midnight of the Christian year, the season is rife with dark, gritty realities…a time of rich paradoxes, a season of celebrating at once Christ’s incarnation and second coming….” [from Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, 2018] I need to call out Dr. Rutledge’s book on Advent. It is published by Eerdmans, an outstanding ecumenical Christian publishing house dating back to 1911; it is becoming my “go to” resource for excellent biblical and theological books. You can subscribe for free email updates of Eerdmans publications here.
What I am learning from Dr. Rutledge is the remarkable history of Advent as a stand-alone religious observance with a rich treasury of observance and writing dating back over 1500 years, in many cases quite distinct from the Christmas Season. How did our ancestors in faith understand Advent, and how did they observe it? I will pick this up in the next Liturgy post shortly. But I can say that I am already feeling more hopeful—personally, at least—about my Advent in 2023.