As 2012 draws to a close, the new year of grace begins this Sunday with the season of Advent, the four weeks before the Christmas season. The year of grace assures God’s providential care ever present and active in our world. But God’s work must truly be our own, President Kennedy reminded us.
One of the most famous paintings of Jesus shows him as the “Light of the World.” In the painting by W. Holman Hunt, Jesus stands outside a door that is surrounded by weeds, symbolizing those cares that keep followers from opening the door of their hearts to him. Crowned with thorns, he holds a lantern, and he knocks on the door, presumably a symbol of the human heart. He says: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and we will eat together.” (Rev 3:20) Here he is portrayed as the source of light and of beauty. (“The Face of Christ in Art,” DVD distributed by Kultur) This image needs no explanation.
Advent: A Time of Preparation
Advent is filled with expectation beginning with the ritual of the Advent wreath and accompanying prayers at Sunday Mass. Advent is not just an anticipation of the Lord’s Nativity; it is the time when the Church eagerly awaits with hope the coming of our Emmanuel, God-with-us, expressed in the prayer, “Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus.” (1Cor 16:22)
Dec. 1 to Dec. 16 recalls Christ’s historic coming at the Incarnation and at the Parousia to fulfill the divine plan. Dec. 17 to Dec. 24 celebrates the prophecies of his coming and his birth of the Virgin-Mother. During the Advent season, at Mass, purple and rose vestments are worn, the latter on the Third Sunday (Gaudete [Rejoice] Sunday). The key phrase is “O Come, O Emmanuel.”
“The World Is Too Much With Us”
For the next four weeks, two contrasting mindsets will coexist. One is for Catholics who prepare to commemorate Christ’s coming again in history. The other is the world of consumerism which will likely overshadow the liturgical preparation. The secular world uses the feast of Christmas to have us believe that the four weeks before Christmas Day constitute the holiday season, a time of revelry. By taking Christ out of Christmas to simulate a season of light without the Light, it resembles the pagan celebration of the winter solstice.
Super sales are whipping shoppers into a frenzy, and the madness will escalate unabated until Dec. 25. Then Christmas sales will rush in. As William Wordsworth suggests:
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”
During Advent, Catholics need not be embarrassed to set ourselves apart from the majority by restraining the consumer instinct: “to shop until we drop.” Advent is special: unlocking our hearts to Christ and experiencing ourselves as new and beautiful masterpieces – works of art and Christ’s gift to us on Christmas Day.
The Church’s Year of Grace
Like most cultures, the Judeo-Christian is guided by cycles of time. Though distinct from civil time, sacred time is not separated from it but affects it. Civil time takes its place within the context of God’s plan for salvation. It is through these two concentric circles that we work out our salvation – hour by hour.
The Christmas season has its proper liturgical place, beginning at midnight on Christmas Eve and concludes in January on the feast of Epiphany. Isn’t it fitting to extend celebrations of eternal truths?
During the liturgical year, the whole mystery of Christ’s life unfolds from the heightened expectation of Advent-Christmas to the days of Pentecost, and finally to the feast of Christ the King. As the liturgical cycle is repeated, it becomes the primary way in which the Catholic live with and in Christ. What greater experience is there than walking with Christ throughout the year?
Living the year of grace calls for an understanding, attitude, and devotion towards three things: the year, the week, and the day. The liturgical year is developed according to two cycles of the year: the temporal cycle and the sanctoral cycle. The temporal cycle includes: (1) the Advent-Christmas cycle, or, in the Byzantine Churches, Philip’s Fast-Christmas, and (2) the Easter cycle, Lent, Passiontide, Easter and its extended celebration, Ascension, Pentecost, Sundays after Pentecost, and Christ the King. Following the calendar year, the sanctoral cycle celebrates feasts of the Mother of God and the saints.
If Easter is the center of the liturgical year, then Sunday, the Lord’s Day is the weekly celebration of Easter. Ideally, Sunday, the Lord’s Day symbolizes the eternal rest and joy of heaven. It points to a state of peace between man and nature and a faint resemblance of that messianic kingdom where lion and lamb lie down together and swords are turned into ploughshares. Each day brings with it its own losses and gains in imitation of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection.
Liturgical Life in the Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages, the Church’s liturgical life guided the lives of the faithful. Living the church’s year together united them in a spiritual bond. From Baptism to the Eucharist to the Last Anointing, from the Hours to processions and pious devotions, to blessings of crops, animals, and boats, the Church provided the liturgical and devotional framework that sacralized their lives. The liturgical year “shaped their perception of the world and their place in it,” and these “central moments gave Catholics the key to the meaning and purpose of their lives.” (Eamon Duffy, “The Stripping of the Altars,” 11-46) In France, churches and cathedrals dedicated to the Mother of God were built in strategic locations to resemble the constellation Virga as a way of sacralizing the countryside (DVD: “Chartres Cathedral: A Sacred Geometry.” (Golden Age Productions, 2000)
Liturgical Life in Nineteenth-Century American Parishes
With the arrival of European Catholics to the United States in the nineteenth century, new Americans found refuge in their parish churches which became part of family life. Parish activities lightened the immigrants’ encounter with anti-Catholicism and cultural bias, comforted the faithful living and working in deplorable conditions, and served as a magnet that drew families together in for liturgical feasts. And the beauty of these feasts lifted their spirits, otherwise marked by misery. Families, anticipating one feast after the other, lived with a liturgical frame of reference. Receiving the sacraments was a joyful occasion for the neighborhood, as were feast days of the Mother of God, St. Joseph, and the saints. In living the year of grace, their faith was handed on to be lived and cherished by the next generation.
The Parish Church Today
With the influx of new American citizens, the parish church today supports not just a program of religious education. The parish church itself has become the nerve center for the religious education of the family. In John Paul’s Apostolic Exhortation, “Catechesi Tradendae,” catechesis is intimately bound up with the whole of the Church’s life. Nothing in life remains outside the Church’s catechesis: from sports to politics to social justice, from science to the arts to care of the environment. Moral questions about human sexuality and that of marriage and the family call for special attention.
The Church is committed to strengthening the family, especially where the culture opposes the standards of the faith. Where public morality has broken down, the parish assumes virtually all aspects of Christian formation. Comprehensive religious education begins with externals, from well-cared for churches and attractive bulletins to the care with which the sacraments are celebrated to concern for our children and the most vulnerable.
Strong Liturgical Life: an Oasis in a Cultural Desert
As societal forces virulently press for privatized religion, the public celebration of the liturgical year in the parish has assumed a new urgency. Moral erosion has eaten into the very fabric of living where a secularized and sexualized culture engulfs the family. Moral relativism has been elevated to a civil religion and a public philosophy. There is even a concerted push underway to limit freedom of religion to mere freedom of worship which would relegate the free practice of religion to the home and church and out of the public domain. Parishes that promote a strong liturgical life serve as oases in the midst of a cultural desert hostile not only to the Judeo-Christian moorings of western culture but to virtue itself.
Family Celebration of Advent
The family’s celebration of Advent as a distinct liturgical season awaits a renaissance. There are many ways to do so. The Advent wreath, with accompanying ceremony, symbolizes eternity; the evergreens, eternal life; the purple candles and ribbon, preparation; the rose candle; and the four candles, the four weeks and four thousand years of waiting. The Jesse Tree gives the lineage of Jesus: “The shoot shall grow from the root of Jesse” (Is 11:1).
In the custom of Kris Kindl, a person’s name is picked out of a hat as one’s “little Christ Child.” Throughout Advent, one prays for his or her Kris and may send Kris a note to say so. Just before Christmas, the pray-er gives his or her Kris Kindl a gift of prayer offerings and a small gift as a remembrance of that Advent.
The All-Important Parish Bulletin
The parish bulletin can serve as more than a schedule of parish events. It can suggest practical ways of preparing for seasonal feasts. A good place to start is with Advent recipes and crafts. Children, with their innate tendency for religious imagery, are naturally attracted to them. These charming customs foster liturgical piety in the family. Families are more likely to save the bulletins, filled with creative suggestions spurred on by the liturgical season. With a minimal of research, those who prepare the bulletins can find helpful suggestions on various websites to promote parish liturgical life.
Hour by hour, Advent is the season to prepare, watch, and wait for “the clouds to rain down the Just One” (Is 45:8) and to listen for that knock.