At times I wonder if every believer has some sort of duty to disentangle what is true of the practices and beliefs of Christianity from the presuppositions and conclusions formulated by our culture and society; provided, of course, that there is some awareness of what is true and what is not so true about Christian practice. I wonder because I encounter situations in which society and culture parade ideas and concepts, which all too often masquerade as the truth of Christian belief. These ideas and concepts work themselves into the psyche of many believers, furnishing a distorted and even erroneous grasp of what it is that we believe and practice.
I muse on this because I find engagement with the season of Advent a perfect case in point. I can recall, when I was in formation, one conversation with a very earnest senior friar who tried to persuade me that the Church should give up any pretense of an “Advent” and just give-in to the “holiday season,” and leave it at that. It wasn’t worth trying to contend, he told me, with a cultural ethos that wanted Christmas to begin after Thanksgiving and end on Christmas day. Such commentary did not sit well with me then, and it still does not today. Neither, however, do comments from the opposite end of the spectrum. These would suggest that believers ought to storm the bastions of mercantile entrepreneurs, reminiscent of the iconoclastic frenzy in Zurich during the throes of 16th century reform (!), and tear down any festivity, which has decked their merry halls since just after Halloween, or even earlier!
Both perceptions are the sorry fruit, I believe, of too little attention paid to the purpose, significance, and meaning of Advent within the tradition. Unless we attend to the shape and hue, the texture and nuance of this many layered, perhaps frustrating, season, and of the manner in which Advent speaks to deepening faith in our lives, we run the risk of letting others determine that meaning for us.
With what, though, should we begin in attempting to uncover how Advent speaks to us? Well, it might best serve us to be reacquainted with the texts of the Advent liturgy itself. Now, despite the anxiety that meets us when reference is made to the texts of the third edition of the Roman Missal, there is in the case of the Advent texts some very significant development in the theology of the presidential prayers of the season — albeit one must take care how one proclaims them! This significance is most profound in the description of the attitude of believers who await the Lord’s coming.
In the translations of the first and second editions, the texts for the First Sunday of Advent spoke of providing an “eager welcome” for the Lord when he returns; now the texts speak of “running” forth to meet him. In the texts for the Second Sunday of Advent, the previous translation depicts the faithful as “receiving Christ” with open hearts in welcome, while the translation of the third edition of the Roman Missal describes them as “setting out in haste” to meet the Lord.
If one stops and considers it, these two translations are very different orientations to the principal reality expressed in Advent, which is far from just “waiting around for Jesus to be born again,” or “getting ready for the Christmas holiday.” They are, rather, a quite profound expectation of the consummation of what God initiates at the beginning of time. In the previous translation of the collects, believers are rather passive, preparing for and receiving “someone.” In the current translation, believers are expected to be active, moving with a sense of urgency brought about by the urgent and profound magnitude of “the one” they are expecting. This latter sense captures in profound relief the entire meaning of Advent as that which points us to the fact that we have a future; a truth that for many in our world today seems to be in question.
Such an understanding of Advent is a crucial challenge to contemporary cultural impressions of the season as an insignificant, or merely perfunctory, period of time prior to Christmas. A period that passes all too quickly under a flurry of social and spiritual preparations. Yet, Advent is the season that reminds us of, points us to, and sustains us in the direction toward which faith leads — the fulfillment of all that God promises, when the lion will lie down with the lamb, the child will play at the adder’s lair, and there will no longer be hurt or pain on the holy mountain of the Lord. These images are not the work of fantasy nor are they the childish dreams of those unable to face the harsh realities of life. The Christian confronts the dull and dismal acceptance of what life seems to be, the cries for deliverance, the yearning for meaning, for peace, with the truth of what human life is — bound to the life of God.
To offer a poignant example: In December of 2012, I spent the fourth Sunday of Advent and the entire Christmas season at the parish of Saint Rose of Lima in Newtown, Connecticut, thrust into national and global spotlights by the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and which happens to be my home parish. Culture and society perceiving this time of year as one of fabricated bliss and cheer to make the end of the civil year pleasant could only react to the events in Connecticut with despair, horror, and lament that here was a community, which “could never celebrate Christmas again.”
Such sentiment would indeed ring true if that community of believers lived by the world’s assumption of what Advent and Christmas are. Fortunately, they did not and do not; what this tragedy, as agonizingly real as it continues to be, brings into even more powerfully refined focus is the great need for God to bring to completion what God began. Their laments of pain and sorrow do not communicate the despair of never being able to celebrate Christmas again, but rather voice a demanding cry that an Advent that would lead us to merely a “happy holiday” is useless, inane, and mocks the true need for which communities who experience such tragedies especially require — healing that resolves what we human beings can never accomplish on our own.
Communities like those of Saint Rose of Lima Parish, and indeed, of all believers must enter Advent with the desire to experience something more than the idyllic Rockwellian Christmas. The Savior to whom Advent challenges us to run with all haste to meet is one who brings forth that time when every tear will be wiped away, when there will be no more sadness, no more mourning, when the morning star which never sets shall bring light to all creation. This is the truth that Advent dares the faithful to believe in, which culture and society may never understand, and one that no earthly sentimentality or conventionally prompted wish for good cheer, peace, and joy can ever hope to fulfill.