Ritual Reflections & Musical Musings

By Steve Raml, Director of Liturgy & Music

Advent: A Season of Contrasts

It seems strange to be writing about Advent and Christmas as I am right now. You see, due to publishing deadlines (even for online newsletters) we must write far enough in advance to allow for editors and layout personnel to do their jobs.

So I’m feeling a bit schizophrenic because I’m writing about Advent in September! That’s a full TEN WEEKS before it starts. The temperature is still over 100, we are running the A/C at full blast every time we get in the car and even the retail stores are more focused on Halloween than Christmas right now.

But that may be the perfect opening to an article about Advent, because the Church’s season of Advent itself may come across a bit schizophrenic. I see Advent as a season of contrasts:

  • We prepare for the coming of God – as a man.
  • Our thoughts are of a child – who is a king.
  • We look at an infant – and see a Savior.
  • We prepare for the coming of one born in a specific time in a specific place – while we know that he is the Messiah for all ages.

Advent’s Dual Nature

The idea of contrasts is foremost in the Church’s own teaching about Advent, saying this season has a dual nature: “Advent has a two-fold character: as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ’s first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time.” (General Norms of the Liturgical Year 39)

On the First Sunday of Advent in each of our three-year cycle of Scripture, the Gospel emphasizes the second part of that dual nature, telling us be on the watch for Christ’s Second Coming, and reminding us that we do not know the hour! Strange to focus on the “end times” – on the Sunday on which the entire Church year begins! Another Advent contrast!

We know that trying to speculate on when we our own personal “end time” will come, the day when the Lord will return for us, is simply futile. What matters is how we live in the presence of Emmanuel, “God With Us” today and every day of our lives. That’s the real Advent contrast!

Living the Advent Contrast

So how are we to live in the contrast of the prayerful, meditative season of Advent amid the festive, hectic, merry making of Christmas? We do it by celebrating Advent to its fullest!

For example, putting up a fully lit Christmas tree right after Thanksgiving outshines the simplicity and beauty of an Advent wreath. I suggest that this year, you create and light candles in an Advent wreath each day from Thanksgiving until Christmas, perhaps during dinner. Offer a short prayer asking God to bring Christ into your heart this Advent. Then on Christmas Eve, light up that Christmas tree with all its lights and baubles and see how much brighter it shines! The light itself will show the contrast of the season.

John the Baptist

The Gospels for the Second and Third Sundays of Advent each year introduce us to John the Baptist, the one proclaiming “Prepare the way of the Lord”. If we take John’s words to heart and use the entire Advent season to truly prepare for the Coming of Christ at Christmas, we can better appreciate the other proclamation, that glorious song of the angels: “Joy to the World, the Lord is come!” Our preparation can come by bringing canned goods for a St. Vincent DePaul food drive or buying gift cards for families in need. Our giving during Advent can bring us a gift in return: Christmas joy.

Mary & Joseph

The Gospels for the Fourth Sunday of Advent allow us to enter into the other aspect of Advent’s dual nature: remembering the birth of Jesus. Each year, we hear an announcement of the coming of the Christ Child to either Mary or Joseph. This year, we will hear in Matthew’s Gospel that an angel appeared to Joseph to announce this Good News. In the other two cycles, Luke’s Gospel brings us the Annunciation to Mary and the story of her travelling to meet Elizabeth to share the news.

In either case, we are offered an example of saying “yes” to God, no matter what is asked of us. We see in the reaction from both Mary and Joseph that we humans are invited to participate in bringing forth Christ to the world. We too need to say “yes” to what God is asking of us, no matter how impossible it seems.

The Already & the Not Yet

The point of the Advent season is to live in the tension of these contrasting in-between times: knowing that Christ has already come while preparing for Christ to come again. We live with one foot in the “already” and another in the “not yet”. The great mystery of Advent and Christmas is that Emmanuel, “God With Us” is already here, even as we wait for his coming!

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