Advent is with us once again. It comes around so soon. Like all liturgical time it is complex. In its simplest expression it is a season of preparation for Christmas. Christmas itself come about through a double process. It was a Christian substitution for the sun feast, natalis solis invicti, established by the Emperor Aurelian in 274, which celebrated the sun’s triumph over the winter solstice. It would also seem to have been influenced by a Jewish idea that all great events in a cycle occurred on the same day, e.g. the birthday of all the patriarchs was the same. Since from about the time of Hippolytus it was believed that the actual day of the death of Christ was the 25 March, it was then natural that the day of his conception be the same. By extension Christmas, his birth would be nine months later. John’s conception six months before the conception of Jesus (Luke 1:26) was therefore on the Summer solstice; that meant that the autumn equinox, the declining section of the solar year was the date for John’s conception. The birth of Mary was put at the beginning of the Byzantine year, which was about the 1 September; hence her nativity was 8 September. Here just in these feasts we find a density of celebration that allowed a lot of natural and some rather forced theological reflection.
The origins of Advent show a twofold focus: it commemorates Christmas, which is the birthday of Christ; it anticipates his final coming at the end of time, the latter more associated with the Gallican Church. The core of Advent, from the 17 to 24 December marked by the 7th century “O Antiphons” is ascetical and penitential. This asceticism is part of an ancient Christian motif of preparing for the celebration of feasts by a fast, and also a counter to the ribald celebration if Saturnalia in early January. In time the parallel with Lent became more marked, especially through liturgical notes of Lenten purple, dropping the Gloria, Te Deum, Alleluia. It would seem that the Dies irae was an Advent chant before it became associated with funerals. Hence the penitential aspect was directed both towards the celebration of Christmas, and to the eschatological reflections that the first Coming of Christ gave rise to. Advent varied somewhat from Church to Church, but became standardised in the West by the 12th century.
The idea of Advent brings up the whole complicated issue of the meaning of the liturgical year and the issue of time. I am afraid that after reading literature on liturgical time, I am still in the position of Augustine when he says in his Confessions: “What is time then? If nobody asks me I know: but if I wanted to explain it to somebody that asked me, then plainly I do not know” (11:14). There are two main expressions of time in our lives: there is linear time as we progress from birth to grave, paralleled by the Church’s pilgrimage from Pentecost to the Second Coming of Christ. There is also the cyclic time of the liturgy: there is a yearly repetition of feasts and celebrations. But simple as this sounds, it is more complicated as we look more carefully at it. There is the great Paschal feast that celebrates the death and glorification of the Lord. But this is celebrated each Sunday, which has a paschal character. But in daily Eucharist there is also a celebration of the Paschal Mystery. Everything is present to God’s eternal “now;” the liturgy always celebrates in the present, even as it commemorates and, in a sense, makes present the past and reaches towards the future.
Image above: Advent Wreath courtesy of denvercatholic.org
What then are we to make of the seasons? They operate at a human level that needs anniversaries to recall key events of life. They also take account of the human problem with mystery: we cannot take in mystery; we can only take a small piece at a time. We remember, we reflect on the events in the life of the Lord and in the life of the Church. The cyclic liturgical year affords us this opportunity.
But the reflection is not any kind of consideration. It is one guided by the Church, which teaches, instructs, admonishes, and refreshes us through the Word of God. The key of each constituent part of liturgical time, be it a feast or a season, is to be sought in the readings proposed by the Church. Liturgical time can valuably be seen as various opportunities of recall and anticipation in which God’s Word addresses us in the present to unfold part of the mystery to us, and invite our response in the “now” of our celebration.
Coming now to Advent the dynamic of the Word of God unfolds in prophecy and in memory. We stand with the people awaiting a Saviour announced by the prophets; we reflect on the coming of this same Saviour and we prepare to welcome him into our lives. The complex readings of Advent and their message are admirably summarised in the Second Advent Preface.
His future coming was proclaimed by all the prophets.
The virgin mother bore him in her womb with love beyond all telling.
John the Baptist was his herald and made him known when at last he came.
In his love Christ has filled us with joy as we prepare to celebrate his birth,
So that when he comes he may find us watching in prayer,
Our hearts filled with wonder and praise.
This marvellously succinct text directs our thoughts at the prophets, at John the Baptist, at Mary and at ourselves in the Church.
The prophets saw darkly the fulfilment of God’s promise of redemption.
The people interpreted the prophets’ teaching, often distorting it, so that by the time Christ came, man expected a political leader, a secular saviour.
The Church the guardian of the prophetic word has to exercise constant discernment lest it distort the Word and be conformed to the values of this world.
John and Mary
The two key figures of Advent are a man and a woman, John and Mary.
John the Baptist
John identified the Messiah and correctly interpreted his mission as a spiritual one that needed the preparation of repentance and baptism.
The rugged figure of John is surely a male, yang one, with a distinctive animus.
He preaches with clarity, the hard brightness of the yang:
He can work out appropriate behaviour patterns for society rejects like soldiers, “take no more than your pay.”
He can see through the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders and challenge them to repentance.
His sense of uprightness and order tells him that Jesus ought to baptise him, not he Jesus.
He effaced himself before Christ, knowing that the spotlight was not to rest on him but on the Messiah (see John 3:27-30); ultimately he was not the light, but a witness to the light (see John 1:1:7-9).
He began a conversion movement that was so successful that even in the 80s New Testament authors, especially Luke, saw the need to play down his significance, lest he be a threat to the mission of Jesus.
All in all a fine example of left-hand brain at work.
But when it came to the crunch he was assailed by doubts. From prison he sends messengers to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to await another?” (see Matt 11:2-6). John saw Jesus fulfilling part only of the Word that he John had received; there, was, however, no sign of discerning fire, and depressed in prison, John was disturbed.
God’s word presents the person and message of John to us each year. We must hear his message of conversion. We as Church must be Christ’s herald, making him known.
But the picture of John needs to be complemented by Mary. The sturdy maleness of John must ultimately yield to Mary the female paradigm of the Church.
The Church is reminded each Advent that it must above all be contemplative, feminine, intuitive.
The hard Yang of John needs the corrective of the Marian Yin, the Church cannot live only by animus, it needs the anima, of heart and love.
The Church has many feasts of Mary, but the Marian season is Advent.
It is the contemplative Mary who ponders in her heart (Luke 2:19.51) and who stands at the foot of the Cross, who ultimately penetrates the meaning of her Son.
John points out the mystery; but only Mary was seized by it.
It is important that we gaze at the mystery, but it is more important that we surrender to its gaze.
Watching in Prayer
The conversion call of John is to prepare us for two dispositions: to be filled with joy, watching in prayer.
Shortly before his death in 1982, Karl Rahner spoke of the present time of the Church as a wintry time (eine winterliche Zeit). It is still with us. At times one senses that the present Holy Father’s calls to Christian optimism are like the self-sustaining music of one who whistles passing a graveyard.
But he is still right. Times indeed may be wintry, but the coming of the Lord is a constant motive for joy.
But we are to be found “watching in prayer” our hearts filled with praise (in orations pervigiles et in suis inveniat laudibus exultantes). “Watching” is an Advent word. Indeed to get the flavour of the Latin, we would have to say, “intensely watching” (pervigiles). Advent brings us to the depth of watching.
It is a major theme in the scriptures. In the preaching of Jesus there are frequent warnings to be alert and to watch, because we do not know when he will return. There is a double sense of his coming. At some unknown time, perhaps soon, he will return ad we must be alert and watchful, our lamps burning as we await him. But even more urgent is the fact that probably much sooner he will call each of us to himself as we pass over into eternity. We are then in the words of Paul to avoid the works of darkness and to watch and be sober (see 1 Thess 5:6 and Rom 13:11-14).
It is this sense of watching that we find in the First Advent Preface: “Now we watch for the day, hoping that the salvation promised us will be ours, when Christ our Lord will come again in his glory.” We watch for we know not the day and the hour of the Lord’s coming.
But there is another aspect of watching: “Watch and pray that you do not invite temptation” were the words of Jesus to the sleeping disciples in the Garden (Matt 26:41); and sure enough Peter who slept and failed to be watchful was soon to betray the Lord.
We must be watchful because of the dangers of this present life, especially the ever-present menace of Satan: “Be sober and watch! Your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion goes about looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8).
The early Church practices vigils (see Eph 6:18) as night-time was especially the time for evil. Our Rule is even more demanding, “pondering the law of the Lord day and night and keeping watch in prayers.”
This Christian watchfulness is not only a way of avoiding evil, an Advent theme, but it is the way in which we will be most conformed to Mary, the contemplative who penetrated the mystery in her watchful heart.
But there is a final note in this marvellous Advent preface: we are not only to be found “watching in prayer” but with “our hearts filled with wonder and praise.” These are the right attitudes before the mystery.
To return to the present wintry times. We will not get over them by gritting our teeth in grim optimism or some desperate hope. It is only if we allow our hearts to expand in wonder and praise that we will be able to relax, to be caught up in the mystery. And from the perspective of mystery, everything else is relativised.
If we rightly think of Christmas as a time belonging particularly to children, then Advent is time when we prepare most to enter that child’s mind that is put before all disciples of Jesus: we must become small in wonder, so that we can expand in praise. Advent and Christmas wonder humble our pride and most surely allow us to prepare for Christmas with the expectation of a child, and more importantly with the mind of Mary who quite simple, “with love beyond all telling” carried her God in her heart and in her womb.