1st Sunday of Advent, Year C
Let’s start with my typical Advent primer. Some of you may already have begun to refer to this as my Scrooge homily, which is certainly a fair enough description.
There are two great feasts in the annual church calendar: Easter and Christmas. Easter is the central mystery of our faith, the mystery of our salvation through the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter is so big and so important that we celebrate it for eight days in the octave of Easter and then another eight weeks in the Easter season. Some would say that the Sunday obligation exists because Easter is so big that we have to celebrate every Sunday, too.
Second to Easter is Christmas, which celebrates the incarnation of Christ, the coming of God as man. Of course the two feasts are intimately connected: Jesus could not have died for us if he did not first become human, and there is little reason the believe that Jesus would have become human if it were not somehow tied to his plan for our salvation. Easter is the greater feast, but Christmas is still a huge deal, itself being celebrated for eight days in the octave of Christmas and then again for multiple weeks in the season of Christmas.
Such huge, dominating, incredible celebrations require preparation. In historical Catholic devotional practice, every major solemnity would be preceded by a fast day, with the idea being that one should empty oneself, spiritually and physically, in order to make room for the great joy of the solemnity. Well, if Easter and Christmas are such large celebrations, then it would make sense that the preparation period for these feasts would last longer than just a day, and we see this in the seven weeks of Lent and the four weeks of Advent. In the spirituality and devotional life of the Church, Advent is intended to be a period of simplicity, of emptying, of preparation, similar to Lent. The simpler our Advents, the more profound our Christmases.
However, there is also a unique character to Advent as opposed to Lent. In Lent, our focus is on the suffering of the Lord, so we spend that time taking upon ourselves additional sufferings and will often pray the stations of the Cross. Advent, however, is focused less on physical sufferings and more on the spiritual suffering we call longing. In Advent, we unite ourselves to the ache at the center of every human heart that comes from our longing for God. We all feel, profoundly, our separation from our Creator, and we spend this time of preparation praying about and offering up our longing to be reunited with him.
Structurally, the first part of Advent focuses on the Christian longing for the return of Jesus. We Christians know that Jesus has already come and that he has promised to come again. We long for that coming again. We long to be reunited with him, not in a hidden through real way like through the Church or the Eucharist, but in an open, obvious, explicit way, like the Apostles experienced two millennia ago. We long for our Lord to return victorious and triumphant. Then, on December 17th, the readings and prayers for Advent refocus this Christian longing for the second coming into a remembrance of the longing of the Jewish people for the first coming. We are, at this point, reminded of all of the prophecies given to the Chosen People about the messiah who would come to save them. And we unite ourselves to this first longing, the longing of all of humanity for a nearness to the Lord, so that we can celebrate eight days later the fulfillment of this longing in Jesus Christ.
It is a beautiful spirituality that the Church has developed over the centuries: the ebb and flow of fast and feast, the longing for the return of the Lord, transformed into a remembrance of the darker, harder longing before he first came. This spirituality is good for us because it hits so many different aspects of what it means to be a human being in relationship with her Creator.
All of that said, it occurred to me this year that explaining Advent each year and pleading with people to try to make room for the spirituality of the Church, might actually do more harm than good for our people. After all, even though the Black Friday to Christmas Eve chaos is driven primarily by a deeply unhealthy consumerism, for many of us it is difficult or impossible to separate this approach to Christmas from truly beautiful family traditions and memories. If the priest gets up and says we should try to delay the celebration of Christmas until Christmas Day itself, he is essentially asking his congregation to abandon family practices that are now three, four, or five generations old. So either people are going to not abandon these traditions, and the homily becomes a source of guilt, or they are going to abandon these traditions, as I myself have, which itself brings a form of sadness.
So allow me to offer a few gradual things you might consider, as a way to try to live a little more Advent without completely abandoning your traditions.
First, every form of waiting or longing is an Advent spirituality. If you normally start Christmas after Halloween, would you consider waiting until after Thanksgiving? Or of you start after Thanksgiving, would you consider waiting until December 17th? Putting off the thing that we ardently desire, waiting for the joy that is to come, is exactly what we try to remember and pray about during Advent.
Second, would you consider having a conversation with your family members about how many gifts are really necessary? My mother, sister, and I have stopped gift giving altogether, instead agreeing to see a show or have an experience together sometime each winter. My extended family has a gift exchange that allows 17 people to feel the love of gift-giving while only having to purchase one gift each year. These reductions allow us to focus more on the spirituality of the season and less on the need to buy and possess.
Finally, what might we do with the last lines of our Gospel today? “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.” It strikes me that the psychological difficulty of this season comes because we are focused on deadlines and to-do lists, which is a rough middle ground. Instead, we humans find far more fulfillment in the present moment, or the broad horizon. It is in the present moment that we find fellowship and community with our friends and family. And it is in the broad horizon that we remember who we are and why we were created. No matter how you celebrate Advent and Christmas, we would all do well to try to enjoy the little moments with each other, enjoy the journey of decorating or baking together, enjoy the opportunities to reconnect. And we would all do well to reconnect with the longing that each of us has for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, a longing that first manifested in the Jewish people a millennia ago. If we stay focused on the immediate moments and the broad horizon, then we will not be surprised or thrown into turmoil by the return of the Lord. We will be ready.