It’s Advent, Not Christmas! The Contemplative Language of the Liturgical Seasons
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.“
More Than History
Christmas is so much more than the celebration of an historical event. However significant and consequential for eternal destiny the birth of Jesus Christ of the Virgin Mary was, the symbolic and liturgical language of the Church points us to deeper things than a mere historical commemoration of this blessed occasion in Bethlehem. The symbolic and liturgical language of the Church always affirms that past events are present; that even now – this Advent in this time and in this place – we prepare for the birth of Christ, who has not only come, but who is coming.
It’s Advent, Not Christmas!
I had a recent discussion with a well-meaning evangelical, “non-denominational” friend. She asked about the chapel, thinking that it must look nice all decked out for Christmas. I told her that the chapel is not decorated for Christmas because Christmas has not yet come. I explained to her that Christmas comes at the First Mass of the Nativity, celebrated late in the night on December 24. Then follow twelve days of Christmas celebrations through the Feast of the Epiphany. The Christmas season extends even beyond that through the Feast of the Presentation on February 2. Right now, though, we are in Advent, a time of fasting and preparation, a time of cleansing and prayer, a time of repentance. It is not a time of feasting, and it certainly is not yet Christmas.
The Secular Christmas is Topsy-Turvy
The secular/commercial agenda has flipped the ancient liturgical pattern of Christmas on its head. Because the agenda of advertisers is not to encourage souls to prepare to receive Christ, but to inspire the masses to get their Christmas shopping done, the marketers begin their roguish season at Thanksgiving. This year, I noticed Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving. When December 25 comes and goes, the frenzy is over and marketing ambitions are turned to Valentine’s Day. Christian groups who have lost touch with the great tradition too easily fall into these secular patterns because they have no footing in the symbolic and liturgical language of ancient Christianity. Then again, their tendency is to view Christmas in the same way that they view the Eucharist, as a mere historical commemoration, for all intents and purposes devoid of any present participation in the mystery of Christ. In this, too, they are more in line with the secular mind than with the mind of the Church.
Advent, The Time of Preparation
The symbolic and liturgical language of Christmas, as with all the celebrations of the Church, is deeply contemplative. It assures and affirms the movement of the sinful human Godward. Of course, Christmas celebrates God’s shocking and graceful movement us-ward, towards his creation and his humanity. Still, the other half of the story depends on us. If no one had received the Law and its discipline, there would be no people to whom the Christ would come. The personal outcome of Christ’s coming depends on our response, on our preparedness to meet him, to accept him, to allow him into our midst. Christ comes to be born in us, and if he is so born in us, he will take us to where he dwells, in the bosom of the Father.
Without Advent, we never hear the call of the Baptist: “Prepare the way of the Lord!” We never hear that call into the wilderness of the Jordan, there to cleanse our lives, to fast, to pray, to beg God’s forgiveness in sober self-assessment. Without such preparation, when Jesus comes, there is simply no room at the inn. He passes unseen like a thief in the night because we have not done the work of opening our eyes, opening our hearts and minds. We are lost in the busyness and bustle of the secular world, as it careens towards its own demise in the darkness of ignorance. Our lamps are burning out, our wicks are untrimmed, and we have no extra oil.
Christmas, receiving Christ into the manger of the heart, requires preparation. When the bridegroom comes, let us celebrate mightily with lights and greens and feasts. But let him not find us preoccupied with these things before the time has come. Let him find us sober, vigilant, and prepared; watching for our true salvation.
Come Pray With Us
We invite you, then, to observe Advent and the real Christmas season (when it begins) here at Mons Nubifer Sanctus, a Christian spiritual retreat center focused on one-on-one and small group formation in the Christian spiritual life. Join a silent retreat and prepare to receive your Lord through a deep practice of contemplative prayer. Come to simplify your life, to still your heart, to trim your wick and fill your lamp, so when the true light who enlightens all comes, you will be found to be like him.
That, indeed, would be something to celebrate!