By – Victoria Seed
In the middle ages Advent was often called St Martin’s Fast because it was a penitential season focused on prayer, almsgiving, fasting and abstinence that began on the feast of St Martin de Tours (11th November) and lasted until Christmas. In those days the faithful had many dark, meatless days of preparation before the joy of the Nativity. Today the days leading to Christmas are markedly different for most of us. We hear about the Second Coming of Christ at mass, and are urged to repentance, following the call of John the Baptist, but outside of mass the world is abuzz with premature Christmas excitement. Christmas parties, Christmas wish-lists, Christmas shopping, Christmas fayres, Christmas decorations and planning the Christmas menu dominate our days and nights. The humble advent candles, coloured penitential purple and hopeful rose, tell us the time is not yet come, that Jesus is not yet here, but we shove that into a corner behind a glitzy Santa Claus and a and continue with the feast. Christmas seems to begin sometime in November and go until New Year’s.
There is something understandable about our bacchanalian Advent days: we want to celebrate Christmas. We want it to be Christmas now. And why not? We are not Puritans. Christmas, the feast of the birth of our Lord, is worth celebrating. But right now, in the early days of December, the churches are decked out in purple, the congregations sing Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and the readings speak of the end times. Everything about the mass is reminding us it isn’t Christmas yet.
The liturgical year is a great gift to the faithful. There is a great and ancient wisdom in the progression of its seasons. Penitence (purple) prepares us for feasting (white), and every-day, ordinary spiritual practice (green) steadies us and allows the lessons of the high and low to take root and blossom in our souls. There are times to mourn and weep, times to rejoice and celebrate, and times to be simply faithful. Advent is the first season of the Catholic liturgical year. The first Sunday of Advent is our New Year’s Day. But it is not the starter’s pistol for the Christmas season, so what is it for? What does it teach us? Why should the lead up to the Nativity of our Lord require penitence?
I think it is too simplistic to say that Advent is penitential in the same way that Lent is. The penitence of Lent focuses on the sorrow of Christ’s Passion, and the part we each play in that. But in Advent we are not focused explicitly on the sufferings of Christ, we are focused on his absence. The penance we are called to is to prepare for his coming. Prepare the Way! Make straight His path! In Lent, our penance is a symbolic atonement, participation in the sufferings of Christ. But Advent brings us back to the beginning. It is the beginning of the Church year, and the beginning of every journey of faith. Advent is the season of longing for a God who is not yet present.
From the earliest days of humanity, faith has begun with this longing that only God can answer. The stories of the Old Testament tell us about it: Sarah and Abraham longed for a child, Moses longed for the Promised Land, the Israelites in captivity and exile longed for the restoration of the Kingdom. All longed for the coming of the Messiah. In the Gospels too we see stories that start with longing fulfilled only in Christ. Mary and Joseph, Zachariah and Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Simeon and Anna all have desires that await the coming of Christ. The Magi travel far, following the star, drawn by longing across the dessert to pay homage to Christ. And all of them had to begin in something like Advent. It was this desire for God that allowed them to recognise Christ when at last he came. He and he alone was the answer to their hearts’ deepest desires. Their faith – our faith – is at root one of longing, not of fulfilment.
In this life we will never be complete. We are a fallen people, and in Advent we re-join those wandering in the dessert, offered only cryptic promises as consolation. Today we feel longing as acutely as our forebears, perhaps even more so. We are restless and impatient: the noise and distraction of modern life can make it hard to pin down what we desire, and the instant gratification available for most desires allows us to be temporarily numb to the call of grace. Advent is the season to feel the lack of God’s incarnate presence, to allow it to leave us hollow, incomplete and unfulfilled. The focus of the readings at mass on the end times and remind us that we too, who live more than two millennia after the birth of Jesus, are waiting for him to arrive. We are still waiting for the Messiah. We are still on a journey towards God.
Advent is a time to renew our own faith in that for which we long. We do penance, make sacrifices and deny ourselves the pleasures of Christmas season so that we can more keenly feel that hunger, and also to prepare ourselves for the fulfilment of the deepest desire of soul. It would be a shame if Christ, the root of all our longing, was to return and find us sated on worldly pleasures, too full to welcome him in. Fasting, prayer and almsgiving are all ways of making the hollowness we feel God-shaped. Embracing the desolation of Advent can transform our longing into the virtue of hope, awaken in us a sense of wonder, and prepare us to celebrate with joy Emmanuel, Christ with us on Christmas morning, and to rejoice, feast and make merry for the whole of the liturgical season of Christmas.