There is no time quite like Advent. This liturgical season is rich in symbol and exalted in sacred poetry and music. Advent signals “a new journey of the People of God with Jesus, our Shepherd, who guides us through history toward the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. Through Advent, we experience a profound sense of the meaning of history” (Pope Francis, Homily, First Sunday of Advent).
The period from December 1st to December 16th recalls Christ’s historic coming at the Incarnation and at the Parousia to fulfill the divine plan. December 17th to December 24th celebrates the prophecies of the Lord’s coming and his birth of the Virgin-Mother. During the Advent season, purple vestments are worn by the priest, and the color rose, on the Third Sunday (Gaudete [Rejoice] Sunday). Throughout these day, “Come, Lord Jesus, come” is the phrase on the Church’s lips. The short four-week season is filled with hope that satisfied by the advent of the Lord.
The fall season is about to end. The trees are bare. As the days grow shorter and the darkness of the long winter nights set in, Advent prompts reflection on the Light who graced the darkness. During Advent, “we rediscover the beauty of all being on a journey: the Church, with her vocation and mission, and the whole of humanity, nations, civilizations, cultures, all on a journey along the paths of time” (Pope Francis). Christ is the Light in the tunnel and at the end of the tunnel. Awaiting the Incarnate birth—this single, solitary event calls for silent wonder.
Liturgical Life in the Middle Ages
In medieval times, the Church year 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 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). As a way of making sacred the French countryside, churches and cathedrals, dedicated to the Mother of God, were built in strategic locations to resemble the constellation Virga.
Liturgical Life in Nineteenth-Century American Parishes
With the arrival of immigrants to the United States in the nineteenth century, new American citizens sought the familiar religious atmosphere in their parish churches which became part of family life. Parish activities lightened the immigrants’ encounter with anti-Catholicism and cultural bias. Liturgical feasts comforted the faithful living and working in deplorable conditions and served as magnets that drew families together. And the beauty of these feasts lifted their spirits, otherwise marked by misery. Anticipating one feast after the other, families lived within 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 down to be lived and cherished by the next generation.
The Parish Church Today
With the influx of new citizens, the American Church today faces new challenges to universalize the Church in the particular. The parish supports not just a program of religious education; it has become the nerve center for the religious education of the family. In John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, “Catechesi Tradendae,” catechesis is intimately bound up with the whole of the Church’s life. Nothing in the life remains outside the Church’s catechesis. The Church has a pastoral concern in all that is human: 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 strengthen the family, and where public morality has broken down, the parish assumes virtually all aspects of Christian formation. Comprehensive religious education begins with externals, from well-cared churches and attractive bulletins, to the care with which the sacraments are celebrated, to the concern for our children and the most vulnerable.
Today, religious faith in the western world is one of many options, and even Catholics have opted for a secular humanism. Our culture, secularized and sexualized, surrounds the family and even engulfs it. 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. 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 away from 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.
In the words of Cardinal Jean Daniélou, S.J.: “We have got to be always transforming ourselves into Christ, taking on the dispositions of His heart, the judgments of His mind” (The Advent of Salvation, 118-19). The whole meaning of being a Christian is to become transformed, gradually, into Jesus Christ and “to put on Christ” (Gal 3:27; Rom 13:14). Our model during Advent is the Theotokos, the one who carried the Messiah-God in her womb.