Welcoming Advent as a Chance to Begin Again
Nations use different calendars, but the passing of one year to the next is universally marked by a deliberate period of reflection concerning the year that passed and a pledge to begin anew, to change, in the year to come.
This is because we all hunger to be made new, we all long to begin again! Advent is a time to begin again. This New Church Year calls us to a New Life in Jesus Christ, the One who makes all things new. (Rev. 21:5) He will make us new, if we invite Him to become the Lord of our lives.
The words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians remind us: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) What does it actually mean to be “in Christ”. Well, that opens up another entire article. Perhaps, a series of articles. In fact, it opens up a book!
However, one of the ways we can learn to live “in Christ” is by embracing a new way, a pattern of a life lived in the heart of the Church for the sake of the world. Let us travel that road together. Let us begin our Advent Journey of faith by beginning this new Church year in Him, together.
GK Chesterton wrote: “The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions.”
“Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective. Unless a man starts on the strange assumption that he has never existed before, it is quite certain that he will never exist afterwards. Unless a man be born again, he shall by no means enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
We all want to be better, to live our lives more fully and to love one another more selflessly. As we end one Church year and begin a new one, we can pause to take inventory. In Little Gidding written by T.S. Eliott we find these often quoted words:
“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice. What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”
Advent can become such a beginning for us.
In a western culture where the influences of Christian traditions are waning, many ask why we even celebrate Advent.
It is helpful to know our Liturgical history in order to explain what we do to those who may inquire. But even more importantly, it can help each of us to enter more fully into the seasonal participation and experience the grace it offers.
The very word Advent is derived from the Latin words, ad-venio or adventus, which both signify a coming. This liturgical season in the Church has birthed many customs in Catholic practice and life. These customs, if understood and embraced, can inform a pattern of life, a culture, which can help us to build a framework for living our daily lives.
The celebration of Advent can become a significant part of the pattern of faith, culture and worship that is Catholic Christianity. That depends upon us. After all, the Church is not some-thing but Some-One, the Body of Jesus Christ.
Advent is also practiced within some of the Communities, confessions and traditions that sprung from the Protestant Reformation. Interestingly, it is being re-embraced in some of the communities that had once rejected it.
Over the next four weeks preceding the great celebration of the Nativity of the Lord Jesus, (Christ-Mass), Christians are invited to prepare, to get ready, to make a place for the Lord in our lives and in our homes – and to anticipate His coming.
This liturgical practice places us in the heart of a Church which stretches back two thousand years and forward toward the final coming of the Risen Lord. However, like so many treasures in the Church, it must first be re-discovered, embraced and lived, in order to bear fruit in our life.
As a Deacon of the Church, I will join with priests and Bishops in wearing lavender vestments when I serve at the altar. Lavender is a color that connotes both repentance, and expectation. These two experiences, a call to repentance and an invitation to joyful expectation, reveal the spirit of this Liturgical season.
Advent is a time when we are invited to get ready – to build up the hope within our hearts for the promised coming of Jesus Christ! We are exhorted to repent of our sin, renounce our wrong choices, and empty ourselves of ourselves – so that He can come and take up His Residence within us – and within the Church, which is His Body.
Through the cycle of readings, prayers – and our willing and free participation in them – to make the choice to rid our lives of the of the clutter of daily idolatry and renounce the self love that can so easily squeeze God’s grace out of our lives
Every year, Catholic Christians repeat together- through our liturgy (an anglicized rendering of a Greek word which means the public work of worship) and through the pattern of a Christian life – the great events of salvation history.
We will walk through the great events of Christian history in the Liturgical celebrations and practices. They are not some form of vain repetition, but can help us to inculcate the mysteries of the Christian faith into our nitty-gritty lives in a real world.
We can build a way -a pattern- of daily Christian living with customs, practices, and celebrations which enrich the ongoing encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus Christ that is Christianity.
During Advent, the Church, as a mother, calls us all to get ready, to clean the house, to set special times aside for prayer and worship, so that we will be ready for all of His comings! And, as a teacher, she also instructs us on the very meaning of the Christian vocation.
The Biblical texts that we hear at Holy Mass will be filled with the great figures, such as John the Baptizer and Mary the Mother of the Lord, who are examples for each one if us. They both embody the call to say Yes to the Lord and prepare the way for all who live between the first and the final coming of Jesus.
These Old and New Testament passages are beautifully juxtaposed in every liturgy and in our formal prayer (The Liturgy of the Hours) in order to point to -and expound upon- all the comings of the Lord.
The faithful will be invited to experience the graces found in this full smorgasbord of sacramental and liturgical services. However, ultimately, it will still come down to each person, and each family, accepting the invitation to prepare for the coming of the Lord. God always invites. Will we respond?
When I was a young man, I read a newspaper article in an airport in which a priest wrote that Catholicism was what he called religion for the long haul. I have come to see the truth of that assertion so much more as the years have passed in my own life. I know that some other Christians see practices as Advent as empty ritual; and perhaps for some, that is what they have become.
But not for me. As I grow older, these practices are a treasure to be discovered afresh and an invitation to begin again.
Celebrating Advent, indeed celebrating all the seasons of the Church year, present us with a are continual call back to living faith, repentance, and a renewed relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. They call us back to the things that really matter the most.
The ritual of the Catholic Christian way of life provides a form into which the freshness of the Spirit can be poured again and again. I remember an old Pentecostal minister once telling me when I was twenty one years old “Son, we get filled with the Spirit, but then we leak“. So we do. We need to be re-filled with the Holy Spirit.
The familiar patterns and practices of Catholic faith, life and worship also present an opportunity for shaping family life, developing customs and practicing family piety, all of which can help us to assimilate the beauty and truth revealed in the comings of the Lord.
When embraced, they invite us to break from the monotony of a secularized daily life in order to participate in something bigger than ourselves. They connect us to the One who always comes to those who are prepared, and who invite Him in.
They are meant to become, as we used to say more often in Catholic circles, occasions of grace.
However, they must be freely chosen in faith and then practiced in love. They must spring from the reservoir of a true belief in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. They must proceed from an encounter with Him. And that encounter remains fresh by our participation.
We need to open the ears of our hearts in order to hear the clarion call to prepare the way for the Lord which is the message of Advent. The liturgical seasons can become holy seasons for us, if they put us more deeply in touch with the One who is the source of all holiness, Jesus Christ.
Human beings are going to mark time. We will mark it either with the ordinary stuff of ordinary life or we will mark it as well with the extraordinary things of an extraordinary God, who became one of us so that we could fully participate in the eternal embrace of His Trinitarian communion.
When I am asked by other Christians why Catholics celebrate Advent, I answer quite simply. I tell them it is a gift from God – and all gifts from God are well worth opening. Of course, God has no need of our special seasons, but we do.
Advent, like the entire Liturgical year, can unfold as a road, a way, a path for the Christian life and a deepening of the Christian vocation. When we accept His invitation. In its, Jesus comes, sanctifies and transforms our ordinary into the extraordinary, by grace.
Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. He is alive and walks in our midst in and through His Body, the Church, of which we are all members. We are called to live in the light of that truth and illumine the world through an expressed pattern of life which can help others find their way home.
We are to become like the candles we will light over these few weeks. We live in an intermediate time between the first and the second comings of Jesus Christ. We are changed through the Paschal Mystery. Through the waters of the second birth of baptism, we have been enlisted and empowered to prepare ourselves – and the world- for His coming. Advent is our calling, we are a people who prepare the Way.
One of my favorite readings in the Liturgy of the Hours during this Advent Season is taken from an Advent homily given by a Franciscan friar in the early part of the second millennium named Bernard of Clairvaux. Here are his wonderful words of prayerful reflection:
We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible while the other two are visible. In the first coming He was seen on earth, dwelling among men; . in the final coming “all flesh will see the salvation of our God and they will look upon Him whom they have pierced”. The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved.
In His first coming our Lord came in our flesh and our weakness; in this middle coming He comes in Spirit and in power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and in majesty. Because this coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last.
Through the Liturgical cycle of the Church Year, the Catholic Church proclaims to the entire world the truth that Jesus Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the One through whom the world was created, and in whom the world is being re-created, will come again in Glory to bring redemption to completion and inaugurate the eternal Kingdom in a new heaven and a new earth.
With the First Sunday of Advent we begin the walk through the liturgical year all over again. It presents us with an invitation to enter more deeply into its meaning – and experience an ever deepening conversion to Jesus Christ.
The liturgical cycle of the Catholic Church is a constant reminder to us that every end is a beginning. Advent is a gift, waiting to be unwrapped. No mere meaningless ritual, it can become a treasure for those who embrace it with living faith and jump in.
In and through our liturgical seasons of the Church we are invited to mark our own life journey on the road between the first and the final coming of the Lord by commemorating the great events of the Christian faith.
When we choose to do this in living faith, we receive the grace we need to more fully incorporate the mysteries of that faith into our daily lives. We also build a Christian culture infused with their beauty. We bear witness to the Truth of the Gospel as we manifest the beauty of its promise to a world waiting to be born anew.
As Christians, we know that all time is a gift, given by God. There is no such thing as profane time for a Christian. Time has been transformed by the Paschal mystery; the Incarnation, Birth, Life, Death, Resurrection, Ascension and Coming Return of Jesus Christ. The Eternal One entered into human history.
As a result, time has been forever changed, and so have we. Christ has come, Christ is coming and Christ will come – Again!
Beginning the liturgical year on the first Sunday of Advent has not always been the custom.
Human history reveals an inability to even agree on the beginning of a civil year. As for a liturgical year, it is the product of an evolution that has involved numerous reforms as the Church has moved forward in history.
In fact, the entire notion of seasons and a liturgical year, at least as we currently know them, was not a part of the nascent Church’s lived experience. In the very early Church, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was the hermeneutic, the lens, through which Christians viewed not only the entire year, but their entire lives.
It was only as the Church began to spread – and the imminent return of the Lord Jesus began to be understood in a different way – that liturgical seasons, by which we participate in the unified Mystery that is the Christian faith, began to evolve. Even then, there was a wide variance based upon local customs.
By the second half of the fourth century we find the earliest record of a protracted and specific period of a liturgical preparation for Christmas. Its length, emphasis and the practices related to its observance still underwent development.
Indeed, they continue to undergo development in our own day as the Church exhorts and guides the faithful to live out the full implications of the Christian Mysteries in our personal lives – and to carry forward in time the ongoing redemptive mission of Jesus Christ, the Head, as His Body on earth.
Jesus Christ is not dead. He is alive! He has been raised. Jesus is not just a memory to the Christian or to the Christian Church. He is alive in our midst and living His Life in and through His Body, the Church, of which we are members.
The Liturgical year is not some rote, dead custom from the past. Rather, when it is embraced by Christians who are alive in Jesus Christ – and filled with the Holy Spirit – it becomes a gift and a vehicle for our missionary work. It becomes a road along which we travel.
Maranatha (Come, Lord Jesus) (Rev. 22:20) was the heart cry of the early Christians. Let us make it our own. Let us live our lives in the Lord. Let us welcome Advent as a time to begin again.
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