The season of Advent is an important season in the Liturgical Calendar. The season of Advent encompasses the four weeks prior to Christmas.
The word Advent derives from the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming”; this refers to the next season, Christmas.
Advent serves two purposes in the Church, two of them are:
Advent begins the Church year. The First Sunday of Advent is the New Year’s Day of the Church’s liturgical year.
More importantly, Advent is the liturgical period of preparation and penitence for the Christmas Season. It is not nearly as somber as Lent, but it does call us to reflect upon the impending mystery of the Incarnation, God becoming human.
As the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops explains about Advent “…is a time of preparation that directs our hearts and minds to Christ’s second coming at the end of time and also to the anniversary of the Lord’s birth on Christmas. The final days of Advent, from December 17 to December 24, focus particularly on our preparation for the celebrations of the Nativity of our Lord (Christmas).”
Are there any activities that an individual or a family can perform during Advent?
Advent calendar – a popular way to count down the days until Christmas, especially in families that have small children.
Advent wreath – a wreath made of evergreens, usually. The wreath holds four equally spaced candles, the three purple ones lit on the “penitential” Sundays and a pink one for Gaudete Sunday, the joyful third Sunday in Advent.
Jesse Tree – the Jesse tree tells about Christ’s ancestry through symbols and relates Scripture to salvation history, progressing from creation to the birth of Christ. The tree can be made on a poster board with the symbols glued on or use an actual tree.
How can a person make Advent a more meaningful season?
We can do many things that can make Advent much more meaningful on a personal, family and a communal level:
Attempt to pray the Divine Office on a daily basis.
Attend daily Mass so that you can hear Scripture read and examined or interpreted.
Try to do readings from Scripture that associate with the theme of the season. Read from the prophet Isaiah, for example. Look in the missalette for the daily Mass readings.
Have the youngest child in the family, on a daily basis, read a passage from Scripture that reflects the Advent calendar.
Celebrate an Advent wreath ceremony on a weekly basis. There are many available prayers and hymns found on-line that could accompany this ceremony. See the list below.
Use these Lectio Divina guides to meditate, contemplate, and pray on your spiritual preparation for Advent and Christmas.
Jesus said to his disciples: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left. Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” Mt 24:37-44
Latin is back in the headlines! This ancient mode of communication has had an amazing and long life. Not bad for a supposedly dead language!
In the current impeachment debate, the phrase ‘quid pro quo’ rather succinctly expresses the ‘this for that’ nature of the offense that is being tried. The English words don’t quite communicate the full meaning nor its obvious menace as a legal term.
The specter of Latin was further advanced by the example of Nancy Pelosi breaking down the word “exculpate” in suggesting that the President testify in his own defense.
The legal world is filled with examples of the use of Latin, which bespeaks its dependence historically on the jurisprudence forged during the Roman Empire.
The dependence of Western thought and civilization itself on Latin as a common language is underlined by its dominance in the affairs and liturgy of the Catholic Church. I remember that, after the Second Vatican Council, many people decried the use of Latin by inaccurately saying that we should keep Latin because that is the language Jesus used at the Last Supper! Of course, Jesus spoke Aramaic which is a variant of Hebrew. But Latin over hundreds of years became the dominant classical language uniting the countries of Europe and even spawning some of the most beautiful languages of the earth: Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian.
Allied with this bulwark of unity and beauty was the development of a style of music that even today haunts us with its beauty and majesty: Gregorian Chant.
One of the tragedies of the misuse of liturgy right after the Council was the disappearance of Latin in the liturgy and especially in the Church’s music. This was never the intent of the Council, where it states clearly in the Council documents that some use of Latin was to be preserved. Instead, it was thrown out! There is a welcome movement now to reestablish a place in our Church for this great linguistic and musical heritage.
This does not mean that we go back in time to the Pre-Vatican II era and slavishly try to recreate the past as a kind of religious antiquarianism. To go backwards is not possible and has within it the seeds of a lack of faith in God’s providential guidance. We are here at this time of the Church’s life by God’s grace. While the liturgy can always respond to valid corrections, it cannot be totally wrong, since we are led by none other than the Spirit of God.
While there are elements in the Church who use Latin as a flag or rallying cry for a whole host of complaints about the Church, one can be totally faithful to the path the Church has taken after Vatican II and still love the use of Latin in the liturgy, provided it is reintroduced with pastoral care and education.
Latin is part of our heritage as the Catholic Church. Traditionally, people in the Western Church have been called ‘Latins’ since we adhere to the Latin language.
For me, to pray the Our Father in Latin or the Hail Mary (so beautifully set to music by Schubert as the ‘Ave Maria’) puts me in connection with the many saints that prayed those exact words. I could imagine St. Augustine and St. Teresa, St. Benedict and St. Clare (to name a few) around me joining me in those same words as part of the historical pageant of praise!
This does not mean that we turn our backs on the Vernacular. Latin used to be the language of the common people. When the Pope ordered St. Jerome to translate the Old Testament from Hebrew to Latin and the New Testament from Greek to Latin, he was speaking as the Fathers of Vatican II spoke. He wanted all people to understand the readings. Latin was the English of that day.
So, carefully, thoughtfully and pastorally, we here at Immac will try to re-introduce the Latin language in a limited sense: not to supplant the use of English, Spanish, Italian and Tagalog, but to enhance our worship with the beauty of the music of Gregorian Chant and to help us concentrate on the words that we say so thoughtlessly in our own languages.
How wonderful it will be to join the hosts of saints who in our history made those same words the core of their prayer! Latin means going forward and not backward!
In the perennial debate at Christmastime regarding how to refer to this great feast that has been largely secularized, we often do not realize that the word often put forth as the safe secular alternative “holiday” has the root meaning that it has always had: “holyday”. There cannot be holiness without God. Thus, even the secular proponents of this term ought to consult their dictionaries for the etymological meaning of the term!
Embedded in our Western Culture are the assumptions and outline of the Judeo-Christian worldview. It is present in everything. This is why it is so difficult to discern. If fish could talk, would they notice water? It is that all-encompassing. Even the thinkers who attack faith use the weapons forged by this world view. We are all, even the atheists and nihilists, speaking in Christian terms. Marx and Freud, Cinderella and Darth Vader, Democracy and Communism would be meaningless without Christianity.
This is a hard pill to swallow if you are a militant atheist. Christ, like in the BC and AD split of time and history, has changed everything, even altering the way we understand reality itself.
This Christian Humanism pervades our business world, our entertainment and our secular government. Gone are the gladiatorial conflicts and the throwing of human beings to the lions for entertainment. We may be cruel at times, but we all know it is wrong.
This moral outlook which was the gift of our Judaic ancestors in the faith is at the basis of our entire outlook. I remember one poet of the Japanese Haiku (a short poem of a strict brevity) remarked that what was purely descriptive in Japanese was often, when admired by a Western observer, turned into a moral lesson. We worship God, not by ritual, but by moral living. One has only to compare a Japanese Haiku with an equally pithy short poem by Emily Dickinson with its deeply ethical viewpoint to see the difference that Christianity has brought to the World.
This ethical and deeply meaningful point of view can be found all through the concerns that fill our newspapers, often written by supposed unbelievers. Whether the issue is climate change, sexual abuse, the MeToo movement, democratic reforms etc., the guiding energy is always ethical. Its basis is of Judeo-Christian origin. This is what the Ayatollahs and the Communist Chairmen fear the most. Even in its secular garb, the concerns and the whole framework of reality has been shaped by the Christian ethos. It is very attractive and it begins to transform, in a hidden but effective way, as soon as it touches other cultures.
Its power can be explosive. What was it that turned Rome against Christ? How could a religion of universal love and the Good News of the inherent dignity of the human person be so feared by Caesar? Was it perhaps the sight of slave and freeman attending Eucharist side by side, both receiving Communion? Was it the banishment of the code of hatred toward one’s enemies? Was it the equal dignity given to women? Was it the proclamation of God’s special love for the poor? Yes. All of it, for compassion and forgiveness drive a stake through the heart of most world governments, be they ancient Rome or modern Beijing. Christianity is destabilizing in every age and in every culture.
The story of the Infant born in poverty in Bethlehem, who lived His life in obscurity and died as a result of Capital punishment is the most radical manifesto of a new world order that was ever proclaimed on earth. And it is so attractive that a sage like Aquinas and the simplest peasant of the Andes could both bend the knee at the beauty and the justice of it all.
We have developed, without knowing it and probably as a consequence of God’s action, a kind of Christian Secularism that is not overtly religious but has within it Christian concerns and principles. It is hard for us to see at times how the story of Batman or Cinderella could be Christian parables. But many films and fairy tales that seem even explicitly critical of religion are based on Christian presuppositions.
As Western Culture spreads, so do those Christian principles that will create problems for those of opposing viewpoints. What is China to make of what is happening in Hong Kong? The love of freedom and the moral concerns that they are fighting for? And will the communists ever accept that the basis of their communist “faith” is the Judeo-Christian world view that formed Karl Marx?
To be human has become a Christian project whether the participants know it or not.
Toward the end of the liturgical cycle (it begins on the First Sunday of Advent and ends with the Solemnity of Christ the King), we are asked to think about the endings of things: this world and where we are headed, and the world to come. Some of this is very scary! Thinking about the end of existence as a planet, whether through climate change, nuclear war or planetary collision, is the stuff of movies chock full of special effects!
After thinking about these things, though, we are reassured by the sunrise and the sunset, and we think all is right with the world. That is, until we get the night terrors again.
Once we cross over from the world of science fiction to the world of theology, we enter an unknown and mysterious place that has no rules and which frustrates all attempts at understanding and the use of the imagination. When we think of the ‘last things’ (that is death, judgment, heaven and hell), we often are captive of the way artists of the past have imagined things. When you say ‘heaven’, one often thinks of clouds and lots of angels playing harps. The angels themselves are either classically beautiful and sexless beings with oversized wings or little baby angels or ‘cherubs’ hovering around looking like they can’t find anyplace to land! If one were to be honest about such depictions, heaven seems like a really boring place!
Then when one turns to ‘hell’, however, we see lots of writhing figures screaming in pain surrounded by flames. While it is frightening, it pushes us to ask the question: if God is Love, why does He torture people, eternally?
One has to begin with the inaccuracy and the limitations of these mental pictures. Heaven is the realization of all our joys and hopes. What does that look like? No one knows. Hell is being eternally separated from Love (God) and being unable to ever love again. What does that look like? No one knows.
Every single representation of the joys of heaven fall short of the reality. It cannot be accurate since we are reflecting on a completely different sphere of existence that we do not even have language for. The symbols and the mental pictures provided by great artists like Dante in his Divine Comedy necessarily use imagery from this earthly environment. Otherwise, we would find the picture unreal and indecipherable. Because we cannot possibly understand what awaits us for our fidelity to God, it becomes useless to try. When speaking of Paradise, the Bible talks about a garden. To the people of the desert, a garden is an almost too beautiful image since they are surrounded by sand. But, to those from more fertile lands, it is a rather weak symbol of what awaits us.
The point that I am trying to make is that images of the afterlife are conditioned by one’s culture and the expectations of one’s native history. They are not to be accepted dogmatically. In fact, if they are accepted literally, then they can provide fodder in the arguments of atheists and nihilists who reduce the power of God to limited means and expectations.
It is always better to refer to the Scripture passage that opens up vast possibilities: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, God has prepared for those who love him (1 Corinthians 2:9).”
We are as limited in vision as a baby in the womb is of this present life. I often use the example of trying to explain to a baby in the womb what a pizza is! The child has never seen anything, nor does the child know what eating is since the child has never taken nourishment that way. And what of the concepts of roundness and tomato sauce and cheese and hunger and taste? The child does not even have a language to process these thoughts!
We are like this when we speak about the world to come. We don’t even have a language to phrase the concepts. We are limited by our experience and have not the slightest idea of the many avenues of creativity that God has to work with.
There are things about the future, both good and bad, that we cannot hope to imagine or understand. It is better to wait to be completely surprised by what is in store for us (hopefully of blessedness) than to be disillusioned by our weak and earthbound concepts.
I am content to let God be God and just trust that He knows what is best for me and that He has gone in Christ to prepare a place for me and that He will come back to take me with Him so that I can be where He is. That is what counts. To be with the One who loves me the most is going to be heaven, no matter which way it looks or feels. I will just wait and see and, hopefully, be filled with joy!
Often times, people in their elder years have said to me (usually after telling me of their aches and pains): “Don’t get old!” It’s a funny expression because we don’t have a choice about it. Time keeps moving forward and nothing can stop it!
We can try to change our mentality, however. Some say this with the catch phrase: “you’re as old as you feel”. Often, this is all about ‘other people’. But there comes a time in a person’s life when they realize that “I am getting old” or more accurately: “I am old!”
This idea does change sometimes. When my Dad retired at 65 years of age and got his gold watch (an ironic gift!), it seemed like the end of the road for him. Today, people have second careers and some don’t retire. With medical advances, 65 is no longer ‘old’ but ‘young old’ (followed by ‘middle old’ (70’s) and ‘old old’ (80’s) and above!).
What adds to the confusion is the prejudice of this era of time that exalts youth and condemns aging. People are not proud of getting old; youth is valued highly. In other cultures, the elders are a venerable group that everyone treats with respect, even reverence. Their experience of life is valued as wisdom and they are sought and consulted about many things.
Not in our modern culture, however. The elderly are no longer at the center of our lives, but put at the peripheries. The marvels of science have produced an extended life span, but have decreased the quality of life as one progresses (or regresses depending on one’s point of view.)
This devaluing of age has caused a sense of shame at getting old. People don’t want to talk about their age (until they hit 90 and ask you to guess their age—so happy and proud that they have lasted so long with their mind intact!)
Yet aging is part of God’s plan. There is a progressive wisdom as one loses some of the powers of youthfulness in that it brings to the fore our total dependence on God: “Blessed are the poor in spirit!”
Aging is the school of poverty. By this poverty, we don’t mean the dereliction of hunger and misery that we see throughout the world. Rather, it bespeaks the virtue of gradual mortification of our acquisitiveness and the learning to live in simplicity and ultimate dependence on God. In aging, we see this happening in a very dramatic way.
A noted professor of mine once said that we misunderstand the virtue of poverty. It is not truly poverty if it can be embraced (as in the vow of poverty), it becomes true poverty when it embraces you! Elders do not have to be convinced of this point. As you age, things that seemed only natural and given become the subject of intense concern. We start losing our hearing. We cannot see as clearly as before. Our balance is affected and we sometimes fall. Worse of all: our minds can’t be trusted any more. We forget, we misunderstand and we lose the bearings that we often took for granted. We wander from doctor to doctor, awaiting results from innumerable tests. We are at the mercy of drugs prescribed often accurately as we follow their protocols.
The main temptation during this time, as both the mystics and the therapists both attest to, is the temptation to despair. This is the ultimate test of our faith in God. It is reserved in large measure to this time as the ultimate purifying force. To emerge from this time intact is to begin to experience the love of God that knows no limit and cannot be thwarted. In growing old and facing these natural calamities while maintaining a trust in God is the ultimate test of our spiritual maturity. It is the time of ‘Confessors’: those who witness to the reality of God and His goodness in the midst of woe. It is a type of ‘white martyrdom’ that, while achieved without the shedding of blood, is a real and powerful attestation of God’s love when highly inconvenient and often at a time of great difficulty and stress.
Aging in the Lord is not easy, but it is the antechamber to eternal life and constant joy.
One of the most uncomfortable things about our internal life as Christians is anger. We often confess it because we feel it often and it makes us very uncomfortable. It feels like we are out of control and, if unchecked, it could very often lead to violence. It is a sin often confessed as a lack of patience. It makes us feel that we are losing control of ourselves. It is the earliest negative emotion we feel as children when we encounter the anger of our parents at something we did, often unconsciously. “Stop that!”
But Jesus got angry, not only when He forced the money changers out of the Temple, but often with His disciples who many times did not get what He was trying to teach.
So we see that there is a good anger and a bad anger. Anger is not a sin necessarily. Anger is an energy of the human being that, when well directed and when it serves a divine purpose, can be a good. This is hard to see if we are uncomfortable with this energy. One of the reasons we are uncomfortable with it is that we often confuse it with violence which is only the result of a poor use of it.
I have been doing a great deal of study in Orthodox Spiritual Theology. One of the important points in this outlook is how the Fall of Man and Woman in Genesis warped the powers of the human soul, and that spirituality is an attempt to redirect these energies back to the original reason for their creation. So the energy of desire that was meant to serve our relationship in love to God became the desires that run rampant and develop into unruly appetites and even addictions. This must be corrected by the virtue of temperance. The energy of reason and intelligence was meant to help us discern how to act and to consider what is best for our relationship to God and others. It devolved into the use of reason to justify the sins we commit and to create a wall to seeing the appeal of goodness. It must be corrected by the virtue of prudence.
But then God gave the Human Person the energy of anger to defend oneself and to build the necessary strength to fight against evil, to war against the demons, and to provide the determination and backbone to accomplish the will of God even when faced with discouragement and the temptation to give up. The proper use of anger is the virtue of courage. When it is deformed it descends into the abyss of violence and self-hatred.
So one can see that this ‘uncomfortable virtue or power’ that we call ‘anger’ has a good use and, when properly used, is of great benefit. It is essential, however, that this power be directed by the other powers of temperance (knowing the limits and the proportions of things) and prudence (the rational use within those boundaries). Then and only then does the full power of the gift become apparent.
When, for instance, Jesus defended the sinful woman who washed His feet with her tears, was this not a beautiful example of the right use of anger? “Leave her alone!” This act of defense was energized by the virtue of just anger.
I think that our uncomfortableness with this virtue arises from the many misuses of it and by the fact that it makes us feel like we are losing control of ourselves. It is a little like a fire within us: dangerous, yes, but who can live without fire?
It is of the essence of the diabolical that it warps what is best in us. They cause the energies that God has given to us to work against ourselves and others. Temperance gives way to addictions, Prudence to heedlessness, Anger to violence.
A great deal of the spiritual life for a Christian is to fight against evil, first in oneself and then in the world around us. But if we distrust or misuse that energy, we end up in violence and self-hatred. We still must carry on the warfare and we need the irascible gift to be able to have the strength to not allow evil to have its way.
This is the lesson that is found throughout the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy by Tolkien. If we do not fight against evil, it will take over. To not use the energy of anger in the proper way, it is to hand over to the demons control over our lives and thereby a great victory.
We must be brave and strong, cooperating with the grace of God so that we can become the heroes we are called upon to be.
When Martin Luther said, “Here I stand, I can do no other”, he established a leading Protestant Principle of making a choice in an ‘either/or’ context. It is either one or the other and you have to choose.
The Catholic Principle is closer to accepting multiple, diverse ideas and harmonizing them, being faithful to each of them and attempting to fit them together into an organic whole. This could be called the ‘both/and’ method.
The first way of looking at things (either/or) fits very well the temperaments of those who are adversarial in nature. Just watch any of the political debates! People take sides and begin to demonize each other, putting their adversaries into boxes that cannot possibly contain their true contributions to the way forward.
Take some examples: is there any real contradiction between concern over climate change (an issue of the left) with the concern for the healthy protection and development of the human fetus in the womb (an issue of the right)? They are both important and even internally consistent with the need to preserve life either in the womb or outside it. But you would never know that from the often paradoxical way they are formulated. Both are life issues. There is no either/or in this.
On a related issue, there is no contradiction between the quest for equal rights for women and a nuanced and universal understand of what it means to be of the female gender with its particular giftedness. It is not necessary to imitate the foibles of males as well as to accept male solutions to the world’s problems to be equal to males. The unique giftedness of women should not be lost with the mistaken assumption that uniformity means equality.
To look at another highly contentious issue: one need not have to choose between the value of having secure borders and having a realistic and humane policy of immigration, including a path to citizenship that is actually doable in real time.
There is something in the human being that prefers the simple to the complex, even though the simple can be very deficient in the nuances necessary to fully account for truth. People love to square-off and argue an issue even though it may be just a partial truth. One can get very passionate in trying to get someone over to your way of seeing things even when it sacrifices the truth in its wholeness.
Witness the three examples that we have cited. In each there is a truth on either side of the argument, but each side is prevented from seeing it due to it’s obstinate argumentativeness.
What is most necessary in allowing the complex truth to emerge is the virtue of detachment. The spiritual masters often spoke very highly of this virtue. But the modern misunderstanding of it makes it seem like an uncaring, emotionless response to life. It is, on the contrary, a very life giving virtue!
When we believe something to be true, or if we, rightly or wrongly, profess something to ‘my insight’ or ‘my opinion’, we personalize it and make it ‘ours’. This makes it unlikely that I will admit it is wrong or must be qualified, especially if someone points out the mistake. Our pride gets in the way and we begin to fight for the partial truth because it is ‘mine’ and the other must be wrong. It is then very tempting to demonize the other person who has the contrary opinion rather than to admit that he has some truth in it.
Detachment gives us the power to stand back from our opinions and to get a fuller and more inclusive picture of the issues involved. It increases our objectivity and releases our emotions from the stranglehold of basing our self-worth on winning arguments.
It moves us away from false dichotomies and enables us to work with others to discover the whole truth, not its partial impostors.