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Strive to make Advent a season of expectation

The new church year began on Dec. 2, the First Sunday of Advent. Advent always has four Sundays, but is not necessarily four weeks long. It depends on which day of the week Christmas falls.

Years ago Pius Parsch, in his monumental five-volume work “The Church’s Year of Grace,” drew a brilliant parallel between the two primary phases of the church’s liturgical year and the two primary phenomena in the annual cycle of nature: light and life. The celebration of the birth of Christ, the Light which has come into the world, comes just after the winter equinox, when the days start getting longer. This is roughly six months after we celebrate the Birth of John the Baptist in June; it was John who said of Christ, “He must increase and I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). Following John’s birth, the light of day gradually decreases and following the birth of Christ, the light of day increases.

The transition from death to life in nature roughly corresponds to spring and summer in the order of nature, at least in the northern hemisphere. The Advent-Christmas phase of the church year is dominated by two great feasts of light: Christmas and Epiphany. At Easter death is itself overcome by the Resurrection of Christ, just as the world of nature is reborn with the coming of spring, bringing a resurgence of new life. The Easter cycle flows out of and back into the Christmas cycle. This entire cycle begins with Advent.

The word “Advent” comes from adventus Domini, a Latin phrase which means “the coming of the Lord.” But the coming of the Lord is understood in the liturgy in a threefold way: his coming in history, his coming in mystery (through grace) and his coming in majesty. Christ’s coming in history is manifested by his birth in Bethlehem. This was necessarily antecedent to his coming in majesty at the end of time. This is why the Gospel passage for the first Sunday in Advent always focuses on the same mystery as the Gospel for the feast of Christ the King: the sudden appearance of the Lord in glory to judge the living and the dead. And we must never forget his coming in mystery, that is through grace, as he comes into our souls every time we receive the sacraments worthily.

Along these lines Parsch noted that we cannot long for the coming of Christ in the flesh as did the Jews long ago because he has already come. And, if his second coming seems a distant reality (since it has already been nearly 2,000 years since he promised to come again) we need to “long for His kingdom and His grace which are ‘ever coming.’” He observed that the Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father) itself is a kind of Advent prayer, particularly as we pray “Thy kingdom come” (in Latin, adveniat regnum tuum). It would almost seem that Advent came from adveniat. To the best of our ability, we must strive to preserve this sense of longing.

It is truly a daunting battle to try to preserve the true spirit of the Advent season. It is no secret that, while the secular culture that surrounds us despises Christians and Christianity, it nonetheless seeks to capitalize on our custom of celebrating Christ’s birth with great festivity and the giving of gifts while seeking to suppress Christian symbols. There are to be no Nativity scenes in public places and no singing of religious Christmas carols in government schools. We must have “winter break” instead of Christmas break, and send “holiday” cards instead of Christmas cards. 

We must strive to keep Christ in Christmas and we must strive to keep Advent as a time of expectation for the coming of Christ in mystery and majesty. Yes, we are fighting a kind of battle against the secularized world, but in our homes we can preserve the essence of the season.

Every Catholic home should have Advent prayers and an Advent wreath and prayers when it is lit. One idea is to place it on the family table and light it with the evening meal. There could be a family rosary in the light of the wreath on Sunday or other designated times. Advent calendars for younger children, which can give a daily highlight to the season, are available. Other resources can be easily found at local religious stores, in parish libraries or on pamphlet racks. The internet can be helpful by pursuing such leads as usccb.org/advent, “How to Celebrate Advent like a Catholic” or “Celebrating Advent at Home.”

Advent reminds us we are not the center of God’s plan. Advent reminds us of generations of saints and sinners who longed for the coming of the Messiah. Advent reminds us that Christ is the true Light that came into the world and that Christmas is all about him.

Father William Sanderson is pastor of Holy Ghost Parish and St. Stanislaus Parish, both in Omaha.

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