“The sun shall be no more your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.”
I recently had the unfortunate need to enter Lowe’s. It was well before Halloween (All Saints, really), and lo and behold, one full aisle had already been dedicated to selling Christmas paraphernalia. Every year, it seems the big marketing push of Christmastime starts earlier. This is why I deem it important to offer you a reminder of the liturgical season of Advent.
Lent and Advent
The Feast of the Resurrection (commonly known as “Easter”) is the central celebration for Christians. The Feast of the Nativity of Christ, however, has taken a close second place. It celebrates the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, an historical event that continues in the Church. Both of these feasts are marked by an extensive period of preparation characterized by penitence, sacrifice, and solemnity. These periods are Lent and Advent.
The Meaning of Christmas
The earliest known mention of Christians observing the Nativity on December 25 is in a Roman calendar for the year 336. By the middle of the 5th century, most of the churches both East and West were keeping the feast on this date. In the northern hemisphere at least, the December date made sense pastorally and theologically, if not historically. December is the time of the winter solstice, the time when darkness has reached its pinnacle and the return of the light begins. Pastorally speaking, the Church Christianized pagan rites that traditionally were held during this time, pointing them away from a fallen creation and the cycles of nature towards a redeemed creation united to nature’s source, the eternal life of God. Spiritually speaking, the coming of God in the flesh is indeed the dawn of a new light, the dawn of this new creation, where once again God speaks into the darkness and illumines it with the radiance of his Word.1Gen 1:3.
Like all celebrations of the Church, the Nativity simultaneously looks back into history and forward into the promised life to come. History and future promise, in fact, come together in the one liturgical celebration, where they are realized as one present reality. This is the nature of every Eucharist, and the object of contemplative prayer. On the personal level, Christmas is the celebration of God’s incarnation in you; his coming to lay in the manger of your heart, to illumine the darkened soul and body with his wisdom and glory. If we take Christmas at all seriously, we have to take its inner, spiritual meaning seriously. And if we take this spiritual meaning seriously, we have to take Advent seriously, because Advent is precisely the time when we prepare our souls and bodies to receive the Lord.
Advent, a Time for Fasting and Repentance
Commercialism would have us forget about preparation, the true significance of the season. It would have us begin the celebration before its due time. Unprepared, and unable to perceive its true significance, it would have us celebrating a phantom. Advent teaches us that the Christian life consists first in purgation, and only then in illumination. First, there is a barren desert, and only then a Promised Land; first a cross, and only then a life redeemed. At a certain point in every serious Christian’s life, he or she will have to face the long trek of faith through the desert, where the pleasures and consolations of this world that currently hedge us about are removed,2Job 1:9. that we might make faith as true and unconditional as God’s own. This is the practice of the Advent season, given us as a gift from the Church’s storehouse of spiritual wisdom.
Advent is not a time for bright lights and feasting. It is not a time for indulgences of the flesh, the kinds of indulgences that serve to strengthen the hold of spiritual darkness and ignorance on our souls. Advent is a time to clear away distractions, to reaffirm our commitment to follow Christ not only away from the throne of glory into the flesh, but from the flesh into intercessory suffering on behalf of all. Advent is a time of self-emptying, that we might be filled not with a glory of our own making, but with the spiritual glory of God.
As much as possible, then, deny the glitter of the marketers, the advertisers, the media-genies, the pushers of goods and superficial good times. Instead, dig deeply into your faith, entrusted to you that it might bear fruit. The Church, where her teaching is sound, asks us to practice Advent by fasting, by almsgiving, by self-scrutiny and confession, by spiritual study, and by vigils of prayer. Set up your Christmas decorations as close to Christmas Eve as possible, then leave them up through the Epiphany season. The time for celebrating will come, but now is the time to dig deeper into the reason for the feast.
Practicing Advent with a Spiritual Retreat at Mons Nubifer Sanctus
We invite you to join us in practicing the Advent season here at Mons Nubifer Sanctus. The mid-week Advent Prayer Vigil is a good place to start. A silent retreat marked by many periods of formal contemplative prayer, this program may be especially enticing to those of you who have Sunday commitments. It runs from 12/18 – 12/21: join us for all or part. Register for this program, or contact us to schedule a personal spiritual retreat, by pressing the button below. See our Program Schedule page for other up-coming Advent and Christmas season retreats.
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