Each year as Christmas draws near, the markets go one way and the sacred liturgy another. In retail shops everywhere, down goes Halloween and up goes Christmas. Businesses begin celebrating their “favorite time of year,” the “Christmas Season.” The liturgy, by contrast, urges us to watch and wait. All Saints leads to All Souls, and Christ the King crowns the liturgical year which soon begins anew with Advent. Being in the world but not of it (cf. John 17), the faithful are presented with two ways to Christmas, and there is a great difference between them. In truth, only one of the two roads leads to Bethlehem: not the trade route, but the way of the pilgrim.
Immediately following Thanksgiving Day, itself a vestige of Martinmas (November 11, the Feast of St. Martin of Tours), markets everywhere sing a solemn salve to Mammon, the “god” of this world. Initiating the secular observance is Black Friday, the day when retailers finally enter “the black” in their accounting books and then celebrate for a month of deals and sales like so many graces and mercies.
Christians, meanwhile, begin again, as Christians do best, patiently awaiting the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord, a day known for centuries as “Christ-Mass” or Christmas. If we Christians could only fathom the degree of preparation that goes into netting consumers like fish in the Black Friday feeding frenzy, we might be ashamed to think how little attention we ourselves pay to this season of preparation. It is to this path that we turn, since the ancient celebration of Advent alone makes straight the way to all our hope. For he who was, who is, and who is to come—Christ—has died, is risen, and will come again. Christ yesterday, today, and forever is the pilgrim’s one true way to the light of Christmas Day.
Smells, (Silver) Bells, and Whistles Carols
For the Christian who is in the world but not of it (cf. Pope St. Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam), Advent is a moment of crisis, a fork in the road. The temptation is to exclaim, “Christmastime is here!” long before it ever arrives, and then, when it does come around, not to celebrate it in due season. In this contest of faith, not one of the physical senses is spared. Thousands of lights dazzle the eyes. Wreaths and banners hang upon doors and windows and streetlamps. Grocers sell seasonal scents and savory dishes and dainties—petit fours, eggnog, candy canes. Ice-skating becomes our favorite pastime. Velvety bows abound. Holiday hits, past and present, tell stories to capture the “Christmas spirit.” Retailers’ “Christmas carols” make their annual bid for history’s greatest misnomer. At a time when every overstuffed warehouse feels like one great big Christmas party—during Advent!—offices large and small host Christmas parties, gift exchanges, secret Santa’s, and Christmas dinners…all before Christmas!
So the Christian is tempted, and tempted most of all “not to be a Grinch.” (Even popular children’s stories resist a proper re-alignment of the culture with the liturgical calendar!) It’s all “for a limited time only,” so it seems to most of us that we had better celebrate Christmas on the world’s terms, or else we’ll miss out. We know, after all, that December 26th marks “the end.” No more Christmas music. Down with the ribbons and the bows. “Down with the rosemary and bays. / Down with the mistletoe” (Robert Herrick, “Candlemas Eve,” ll. 1-2). No more holly, no more ivy. Time to usher in the next retail feast, coincidentally another Catholic holiday appropriated by the secular world and made consumable for it, St. Valentine’s Day.
So, what is the Christian to do? While the world consumes, should Christians stockpile? Wait, while the world skates by? Won’t the hot chocolate go cold, and all that glorious ice melt? Am I not a Scrooge to stand on waiting?
The trouble with the world during Advent (and all the time) is precisely its inability to wait. The world wants to hope for and yet enjoy all at the same time (cf. Rom 8:24). Thus a time of hope and anticipation instead becomes a season of all things seasonal, a hope fulfilled ere it hopes, an anticipation met before even the word itself has been uttered. Further and further the world wanders from the Star of Bethlehem, forgetting the way of the pilgrim. Mistaking the object of hope, loving the accidents of Christmas but not its essence, the world marks Advent as though it were Christmas. Yet the world celebrates what it calls “Christmas” minus both Christ and the Mass! In this way Advent has become for the culture around us an extended winter solstice celebration, a prolonged enjoyment of favorite autumnal and wintry things. O to behold God in a cave! O for a glimpse of the Holy Family at that first crèche! O that shepherds and kings would come, let us adore him!
Unto Us a Child Is Born
The way of the pilgrim to Bethlehem must be different from the world’s way, for in the way itself lies the destination. Like the Magi we must follow the outward signs of God’s presence. Like the shepherds we must hearken to the songs of the angels, who in Advent do not yet sing Gloria! Like the angels, we refrain from that refrain: in the weeks leading up to Christmas, no Gloria is sung at Mass. For although “[t]he Sacred Liturgy…can never be reduced to a mere aesthetic reality” (Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, 2), the sacred liturgy catechizes through sights and sounds and scents, through sensible signs and symbols, for, “Liturgical catechesis aims to initiate people into the mystery of Christ (it is ‘mystagogy’) by proceeding from the visible to the invisible, from the sign to the thing signified, from the ‘sacraments’ to the ‘mysteries’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1075).
What then is the purpose of omitting the Gloria during Advent? What but to teach us that unless we forego and forbear, we cannot fully share in the joys of Christmas? For unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit (John 12:24).
This mysterium fidei—Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!—bears the secret to the bittersweet gladness of Advent and the profound joy of Christmas. If we notice Christ’s absence, we increase by that much our longing for his presence. The senses help our souls along the way to Truth, whom we imitate as we may in our human weakness. Recalling that the Bridegroom is not yet with us, we the Pilgrim Church on Earth embrace a time of watching and waiting, seeking God’s mercy, the light of his face, in patient penitence (cf. Mark 2:19-20). While the world gets and spends and gathers and consumes, the Christian empties and lets go, sheds the weight of sin. The Christian does this knowing that the true gift of Christmas comes in a different kind of wrapping—on Christmas Day in swaddling clothes, on Good Friday in a burial shroud, on the Day of Judgment in a mantle of justice, mercy, and majesty…and every day in the Holy Eucharist.
Sensitive to the mystagogy of Christ among us, artists often place in scenes of the Nativity reminders of the fundamental orientation of Christmas to the Paschal Mystery. The Christ-child in the arms of the Madonna may hold a finch, a bird which eats the berries produced by the brambles used to make the Crown of Thorns. At Christmastime we remember soberly and somberly, yet with gratitude and joy, that Christ was born to die for us. Still other artists depict the Christ-child at Bethlehem upon a corporal, upon a bed of wheat, laid in a feeding trough (cf. the roots of the English word “manger”), placed upon what looks like an altar or sepulcher, and not infrequently surrounded by angels vested as acolytes and swinging censors. The art-historical tradition attests to the presence of Christ among us at Bethlehem (which means the “House of Bread”), waiting for us there in the great mystery of the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ’s perennial Real Presence.
The real Gift of Christmas is thus revealed in its concealment, in silencing and confounding the senses and inviting our faithful response, for all prayer is a response to God’s grace. As we recall in the miracle of Christ’s birth the mystery of his death and resurrection, we are also invited to contemplate our own mortality and respond to God’s gift of himself. If God the Father gave us all in giving us his Son, if God the Holy Spirit pours upon us an abundance of his supernal “Christmas gifts,” what will we offer in return? Our response to God’s many gifts, the liturgy’s effects on life, will be sealed against the day of our judgment. The Adventus Domini therefore has another dimension that is all too often neglected: Advent’s culmination in Christmas reminds us that we too are born to die. Yet only if we die to ourselves, only through the death and life of Christ, will we share in his resurrection.
What Say You?
Amidst the business of the world’s “observance” of Advent, it is easy to forget that by the time Christmas comes around Mary has been waiting for nine months. The Solemnity of the Annunciation on March 25th marks the beginning of her season of watching and waiting. Jan Van Eyck’s Annunciation (c. 1434/36, National Gallery of Art Mellon Collection 1937.1.39) depicts visually the dialogue between the Archangel Gabriel and Mary, without whose “Ecce!” we would never have beheld the Nativity of the Lord. Van Eyck shows the message of the angel issuing forth, reading from left to right: “AVE GRA[TIA] PLENA” (Luke 1:28). Mary’s reply is signaled as a response by reading backwards from right to left, appearing to our eyes upside down and approximately in the following manner: “IN[IMO]D ALLICNA ECCE” (Luke 1:38). Mary’s resounding “Yes!” to God the Father is read “from his perspective,” and so the Holy Spirit descends upon her (Luke 1:35). Towards the end of Advent, the Sacred Liturgy does something similar to Van Eyck’s depiction.
The Pilgrim Church on Earth during Advent pleads repeatedly for Christ the Lord to come, crying, Veni! Our petition shines new light on the dialogue in the Creed and following the Lord’s Prayer at Mass, where we look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come and wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. During the sacred liturgy on the eve of Christmas comes Christ’s reply to our invitation.
As Christmas draws near the sacred liturgy consoles Christ’s Bride, the Church, with seven words. These are especially treasured by all who have followed the way of the pilgrim in order to arrive at Bethlehem on Christmas Day. The Greater Advent Antiphons, or “O Antiphons,” have traditionally accompanied the Magnificat during vespers, and later in their history they have served as the verses for the gospel acclamation at Mass for Advent’s final days. Each “O” initiates a supplication for the coming of the Lord, and altogether the initial letters of each address make up the acrostic, SARCORE: O Sapientia, O Adonai, O Radix, O Clavis, O Oriens, O Rex, O Emmanuel. Each “O” is complemented syntactically by the appeal “veni” so that each one reads “O … come!” Hence the title of Advent’s most famous hymn.
The acrostic itself is not easy to decipher: like the prophecies recalled by the O Antiphons themselves, the acrostic is a riddle, and Jesus himself is the solution! Only by reading the acrostic backwards and in Latin is its meaning made clear. In this way SARCORE becomes EROCRAS or Ero cras: “I will be [there] tomorrow.” In response to the Church’s prayers and supplications, the Lord replies with the promise of his abiding presence, the Advent pilgrim’s greatest gift on Christmas Day.