Thursday, November 18, 2010

Waiting in Joyful Hope

A Pastoral Letter to the Church of Salt Lake City on the season of Advent

My dear brother priests and deacons, my dear religious, and my dear sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Few would disagree that we live in a busy and rushed society. We rush from one thing to the next; in the end, many of us are restless and tired, yearning for stability and peace in our community and family. You may have noticed that in our hurried society many stores have already decorated for Christmas, radio stations are sneaking in a Christmas song here and there, and even some of our own parishes have begun preparing for Christmas parties for early December. In the midst of all this hurry, the Church teaches us to slow down, to be patient, and to wait.

What is the rush? Are we really so eager to get to all the decorations up, celebrate the event, and quickly dismantle all the decorations so we can move on to the next event? If we truly believe the Church is the sacrament of Christ in the world1, then we must authentically celebrate the story of salvation as it unfolds in the liturgical year so that we can witness God's profound love and mercy to the world. In these final days of Ordinary Time, I want to take an opportunity to write to you about our celebration of the seasons of Advent and Christmas.

The Church's year begins with the season of Advent. Advent is a season of preparation, although it has come to be neglected in many places. Too often, the season of Advent is overshadowed by the "holiday season" as we move too quickly into celebrating Christmas. By the time that the actual solemnity of Christmas arrives, many of us are burned out. We are already tired of all the "Christmas hype." Christmas has become anticlimactic.

The word advent comes from the Latin for" coming" or "arrival". What arrival are we waiting for? The General Norms for the Liturgical Year helps us understand the season a little bit better by explaining:

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 expectation2.
You will notice that this is not a penitential season. It is a season of joyful hope, a time of preparation and waiting. "Thus the Sundays of Advent, while commemorating [Christ's] birth and anticipating his return, celebrate in word and sacrament his coming now in the midst of this world."3 This season is not just about preparing for the birth of Christ at Christmas, but for the Christ who is continually being born in our midst and transforming the Church evermore into his body in the world.

In the late autumn of the year, as the world darkens, the Church is called to gather and quietly wait in hope for the coming of Christ, her bridegroom, the Light of the World. I am reminded of a song by Marty Haugen: "For you, 0 Lord, my soul in stillness waits, truly my hope is in you."4 Is our hope really in Christ? Have we really allowed ourselves to wait in silence and ponder the great mystery of salvation? Have we been changed by our reflection on this mystery so that we live differently as our relationship with the risen Christ deepens? In the darkness, we watch for the coming Lord. We must not let our busyness distract us from that, lest we be caught unawares like the foolish virgins in Matthew's Gospel5, The season calls us to be attentive to our preparations for the final day and attentive to the quality of our life in union with Christ.

The liturgies for the Sundays of Advent are intended to focus our attention on these realities and to guide our preparation for Christ's coming. The theme for the first Sunday of Advent /I speaks of the Lord's return and urges watchfulness."6 On the second Sunday of Advent, we hear John the Baptist's call to repentance and preparation. The Baptizer is calling us to be prepared and vigilant as we invite Christ into our hearts, but also as we await that final judgment. The third Sunday, or Gaudete Sunday, introduces Jesus as the one who will fulfill the covenant and bring forth the kingdom. On the final Sunday, we hear the gospel stories that immediately precede Christ's birth. During these four weeks, we prepare for the Light, which comes into the world, both in Christ's birth, and as we await his final return in glory. "In Advent, then, the church is called to be more vigilant in discovering the role of the Spirit in humanity in general and in the life of the church in particular."7

As we renew our sense of the liturgical celebration of time, I encourage you to remain faithful to the celebration of the four weeks of Advent. As I mentioned earlier, it is so easy to be consumed by the hype of the "holiday season": to decorate our churches and houses for Christmas, to spend more time shopping than in prayer, and to host Christmas parties before the season has arrived. I know it is an enormous challenge to remain faithful to the Advent season when we are surrounded by a society which, while claiming to be Christian, does not take the time to reflect and prepare as the church calls us to do.

As Catholics, we must celebrate Advent differently. Our reckoning of time is itself a sacramental witness to the fullness of the paschal mystery. If we were to skip the Advent season or any other season, we would impoverish that witness. We are very lucky to have a Church who has provided us with seasons to bear witness to the great mysteries of our faith. As Christians, these celebrations and our observance of time help us witness the truth and beauty of the risen Christ.

This Advent, I call on every Catholic in the diocese of Salt Lake City to strive to enter into the spirit of the season. As we move forward, I strongly encourage our schools, parishes, and each individual household to celebrate the four weeks of Advent with rich prayer. We must practice and model what we preach in order to instill the rich traditions of our faith in young and old alike.

Here are some particular examples of what this will entail. Schools should not decorate for Christmas, but can decorate with simple wreaths and greenery. They might celebrate "Gaudete parties" before departing for Christmas break. I encourage each home to display and bless an Advent wreath where the family can gather for prayer either in the morning, at dinner, or some other practical time. I urge you to hold-off on displaying a decorated Christmas tree until the season of Christmas begins. You may want to incorporate a Jesse Tree  in your family's observance of the seasons.8 As the season draws to its close, I also invite you to discover the beauty of the 0 Antiphons, which are sung as part of evening prayer from December 17th to 23rd, and are most familiar to most of us in the hymn 0 Come, 0 Come, Emmanuel.

Once Christmas comes, the season stretches far beyond the 25th of December. It continues until the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord on January 9, 2011. We should leave the decorations which are testimonies to our joy up for the entire season. There is plenty of time for us to celebrate our joy at Christ's birth and we should make the most of it. You might consider having a Christmas gathering in the parish, or at home with family and friends during this time.

First, though, before we celebrate, comes a necessary time of waiting and of preparation. The season of Advent refocuses us and reminds us that Christ has changed the world. Darkness has covered this hemisphere, and the world itself is quiet. Because we know that Christ reigns over all of creation, we strain in the darkness to see the light of Christ, our coming King. May our observance of this season renew us and be an example of patience, silence, and joy to our hurried and anxious society.

With profound gratitude for your service in this local Church and with my promise of prayer as we enter into this holy season of Advent, I remain,
                                                                                                      Yours in Christ Jesus,

+The Most Reverend John C. Wester
Bishop of Salt Lake City

Given on November 24, 2010
Memorial of Saint Andrew Dung-Lac, Priest, Martyr, and His Companions, Martyrs

1 Lumen Gentium, sections I, 9, and 48.
2 General Norms for the Liturgical Year, 39.
3 Normand Bonneau, The Sunday Lectionary: Ritual Word, Paschal Shape, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press,
1998), 13l.
4 Mary Haugen, ~My Soul in Stillness Waits," © 1982, CIA Publications, Inc. The line is a translation of
Psalm 62:2
5 Mt 25:1-13.
6 Adolf Adam, The Liturgical Year, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1990), 134.
7 Martin Connell/Eternity Today On the Liturgical Year, vol. I, (New York: Continuum, 2006), 75.
8 More information on Jesse Trees can be found at: or

A quick note:

I personally received a copy of this letter today and posted it only after seeing that it had been posted on the website of the Diocese of Salt Lake City and insuring that it had already been officially disseminated. It is a wonderful gift from our bishop to us on the importance of observing Advent. It is even made better by the many practical directions and helpful suggestions he hands on to us. Indeed, we worry about keeping Christ in Christmas. Well, observing Advent constiutes an important part of doing this, which means entering fully into this lovely season, which begins a week from Sunday. This implies waiting until Christmas to celebrate Christmas, but then celebrating that season fully, too!


  1. Advent is 'NOT' a penitential season?

    This leaves me rather confused as I always thought it was. Isn't that why the vestments are purple during this time?
    The liturgy certainly seems penitential, does it not?

    A little confused.

  2. Dan:

    When I received my hand-delivered copy of the letter yesterday afternoon and read it that struck me, too. I am perfectly okay with the fact that Advent is not predominantly or primarily a penitential season, as is Lent, but it certainly does have a penitential dimension, as you point out. However, the wearing of purple vestments is not universal nor is it traditional. Blue is the more traditional Advent color, excepting Gaudete Sunday.

    Certainly the readings for the Second Sunday of Advent call on us to repent, which means, at least in part, to do penance, as does our focus on the final judgment. If that doesn't urge you to repent, then I am not sure what will. In any case Advent is a season that calls us to practice ascesis and to avoid excessive celebration, which we reserve until Christmas when we party hearty 'til the Baptism of the Lord. Of course, there is no greater exemplar of the ascetical life than the Baptizer, who gets short shrift in the Western tradition.

    Very often these days it becomes a matter of words. Traditional words, like penance and mortification, as you mention with regard to your early experiences of fasting, often have bad associations for people and turn them off. Consequently, we go way out of our way to avoid using them. Think about how talk about sin, we are comfortable with corporate sin and structural sin, but personal sin? Our refusal to deal with or understand, let alone combat, personal sin is what leaves us so ill-prepared for dealing with things like the abuse scandal because it is a case of reality flying in the face of our preconception. So, I don't really have any problem with trying to say old things in a new way, which is what Giussani says the tradition requires us to do constantly. This is a pastoral concern.

    Part of my project is to help rehabilitate these terms and to renew the practices that go with them.

    I think, too, that in addition to calling us to observe Advent and wait until Christmas to celebrate Christmas, there is a concern to try and distinguish Advent from Lent, an effort to articulate the unique character of Advent, which is kind of difficult, as Patrick's efforts in our dialogue amply demonstrate. In the case of Advent, as with so many things (think of explaining the Most Holy Trinity), it is easier to say what it is not than to clearly articulate what it is.

    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.


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