Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fleshing out Advent, incarnating it

In addition to beginning the week by writing about the inauguration of St. Philip's fast on Monday among the Orthodox and many Eastern Catholics, which prompted a lively discussion about the observance of Advent among Roman Catholics, the bishop of Salt Lake City, who is my bishop, Bishop John Wester, promulgated his first pastoral letter, the subject of which was the observance of Advent in our diocese. In my estimation his letter is a wonderful gift of guidance on exactly the meaning of this sacred season of preparation and how to observe it. I also discussed Advent both in the catechumenate on Thursday night, and last night with those who are preparing to be received into the Church on the Second Sunday of Advent by Bishop Wester at the Cathedral.

For me, it has been a great week in terms of really focusing on, thinking about, praying about, and, yes, fasting about the meaning of Advent, how it draws me closer to the Lord, incorporates me more into His Body, the Church, and helps me live my life in the awareness of my destiny. So, I am grateful to all of those who participated in this discussion either on-line or in person. Genuine discernment is never done on one's own. Today, one week prior to the beginning of Advent, I want to try to synthesize all of these inputs.

Of all the liturgical seasons, Advent is the most difficult to clarify. So, to fully live this season of grace means living a tension. The kind of tension I am talking about is not the stressful kind, but the kind we require even to be alive, to stay in balance physically, mentally, and spiritually. We seek, as Christians, to embody the Paschal Mystery, which is nothing other than Christ's birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return in glory, a return for which our lives are a preparation. As the late liturgical scholar, Mark Searle wrote, this mystery we seek to embody primarily in a corporate manner, as Christ's Body, as well as in our homes, the domestic Church, and even individually, is "something which can never be completely understood or adequately defined, for it is always open to fresh insight and deeper understanding." In describing the tension required for good liturgy, Searle also clearly defines the kind of tension necessary to observe Advent: "Tension creates energy... a tension between the present and the future." I would add to this balancing tension by throwing in the past, too.

In his pastoral letter Bishop Wester cites the General Norms for the Liturgical Year: "The season of Advent has a twofold character: It is a time of preparation for Christmas when the first coming of God's Son ... is recalled. It is also a season when minds are directed by this memorial to Christ's second coming at the end of time. It is thus a season of joyful and spiritual expectation." It seems to me that it is precisely this twofold character, preparing for the birth of Jesus Christ again in our hearts and, as a consequence, in the world, and looking forward to His second coming, between already and the not yet, which is precisely where, as Hiedegger observed, we always find ourselves at any given moment, that creates the energizing and balancing tension of the Advent season.

Practically, the balance we seek to achieve in our observance of Advent is between giving in to secular culture and beginning our celebration of Christmas even before Thanksgiving, which is also prior to the beginning of Advent, or turning Advent into another Lent. While, as the bishop correctly points out in his letter, Advent is not, strictly speaking, a penitential season, which is perhaps the most significant way it differs from Lent, when we think about Christ's return in glory to judge the living and the dead, we can't help but recognize our need to repent, to change, to be conformed more to the Lord. So, at least by my reckoning, Advent has a penitential dimension, but it should not overshadow the season, which is a joyful one. Maybe we can let the readings for each Sunday set the tone for our Advent praxis for the following week. After all, in the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent, the Baptizer calls us to repentance in a most forthright manner.

Advent is, indeed, a season of waiting in joyful hope, which characterizes the whole of Christian life and is why we mention it every time we celebrate Eucharist: "Deliver us, Lord, from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ" (underlining emphasis added). The vast majority of history, with the exception of a mere thirty plus years, is also, in a sense, an advent, which is best summed up as our waiting for an arrival, the arrival of Jesus Christ, which is not, as too many today seem to think, like Waiting for Godot.

After the Incarnation, our waiting takes on an added tension, which gives it its joyful character, because Christ came, lived, died, was resurrected, and ascended, but did not leave us orphans, which is why He sent the Holy Spirit among us. In his second letter to the Church of Corinth, St. Paul writes about the Spirit being something like a down payment on what we will later receive in full. The Holy Spirit, as I never tire of pointing out, taking this description from Luke Timothy Johnson, is the mode of Christ's resurrection presence among us, made most palpable in and through the sacraments, most particularly Eucharist.

As I wrote in one of the very useful exchanges this week- At the end of the day, it is about conversion, about being more conformed to the image of Christ. So, the question is, what needs to change in me? Reflection on this fundamental question is what leads me to sound praxis. I also have to recognize that I don't change myself, the Holy Spirit changes me. Hence, the best way to describe what I do through my efforts is open myself to and cooperate with God's grace given so freely in Christ Jesus by the power of the Spirit.

Above all, I hope we heed Bishop Wester's call to fully enter into the season of Advent, to allow ourselves to be drawn in by the Holy Spirit, whose primary tool for working on/in us is our Sunday Eucharist. This, I believe, can have no other effect than making our Christmas a truly merry one. This week's goings on here on the blog also made homily preparation much easier. I am preaching the First Sunday of Advent.

All holy men and women, pray for us

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