In his most celebrated and enduring work, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens tells the story of a miserable old miser named Ebenezer Scrooge. The protagonist is visited by three ghosts, each set on infusing into his heart the “Christmas spirit.” As frightful as the experience might be, many of us would wholeheartedly welcome the arrival of a specter if it meant being given the Christmas spirit. In hopes of being caught up in the spirit, we try shopping for the perfect gift. We may turn to Christmas music, but we can only listen to Feliz Navidad so many times (once) before our hearts grow cold. We might blame the “culture” for the secularization of Christmas, but no matter what we do, the Christmas spirit remains elusive. What if, the problem was something else? What if we struggle to get into the Christmas spirit because we never “get into” the spirit of Advent?
As the Latin derivation of the name suggests (Adventus for Coming), Advent is a period of preparation for the celebration of the Feast of the Incarnation on Christmas. Although it has been observed to varying degrees and varying lengths of time throughout Church history, it has always been viewed as a “little” Lent because it is a period of spiritual preparation through the disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It was “little” both because the duration of time is shorter (4 weeks vs 40 days) and because the Church does not command the same rigor as Lent. Its “littleness” has always been the reason why it is my favorite liturgical season and why it offers an excellent time for those of us who might grow weary and lose intensity during Lent or even suffer from a little spiritual ADD.
What Are You Waiting For?
Advent is a season of waiting. Throughout history, God’s people have always waited for Him to fully reveal Himself. The Incarnation may have happened in a specific time and place, but it touches every time and place. When God pitched His tent among us, time and eternity met—now each moment touches God’s eternal Now. The season of Advent may end at Christmas—a day that marks the birth of Christ—but Christmas properly understood is meant to mark the three comings of Christ. First, there is His coming in the flesh in the cave in Bethlehem. Second, there is His coming in grace and the Eucharist to us in the here and now. Finally, it is preparation for His second coming when He will judge mankind. Christmas, like all the Christian mysteries, has a threefold meaning in the past, present and future. You cannot separate any of the three elements from the other two without doing harm to the meaning of Christmas. “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”
This threefold meaning of Christmas is what ultimately helps us to “keep Christ in Christmas” by protecting it from simply being a day we remember some past event. We see it not only as an event in the past that put the world on a different trajectory, but an event that touches each of us individually today and ultimately determines our individual future. The Christmas spirit is a living spirit. But we must prepare for it by following the steady path laid out in Sacred Scripture. The Church borrows the words of the prophets in the Advent liturgies not so much to show they were right, but to make their fervent expressions of longing our own. God’s word is living and active and never returns to Him empty (c.f. Heb 4:12, Is 55:11). We must wrap our hearts around His words through the prophets and make them our own expressions. Advent should be a time in which Scripture comes alive for us, especially by dedicating more time to prayer and study.
Are You Awake?
It is not just the words of prophets that form our Advent, but even the cosmos bids us to “stay awake” as the night grows longer. It is not until the “Light of the World” enters on December 25th that the days will begin to get longer again. The Christmas spirit only comes when we have allowed the spirit of vigilance to animate our Advent. Advent allows us to give expression to that deep yearning for God that we all experience. That desire is so deep within us and such a natural part of our daily existence that we often become drowsy. Advent offers us both the opportunity, and specific graces, to become vigilant. In fact we will likely find that we are more vigilant throughout the rest of the year because we have paid our dues in Advent.
Fasting while we await the arrival of the Bridegroom is also a key aspect of Advent. Assuming that His disciples would fast (Mt 6:16), He won many graces for them when He Himself fasted in the desert. Fasting not only helps us to gain control over our passions, but when done properly actually makes our senses more alert. This is why fasting from food is such a powerful spiritual practice. Because food is necessary to life, the hunger we experience in going without, is felt at the core of our being. We give up what is necessary because we want the One Thing that is most necessary.
Advent and the Eucharist
Advent can also be a time in which we double-down on our devotion to the Eucharist. The Eucharist ensures that Christmas Day is not merely symbolic. We truly receive what we have been preparing for, even if God shields our eyes under the appearance of bread and wine. The entire purpose of all the season is to receive Christ in His fullness and permanently. The Eucharist is the Sacrament that truly brings this about. It is not only Christmas Day but the entire season of Advent that is protected from becoming a symbolic gesture by the Eucharist. Spending more time “keeping watch with Our Lord” for an hour of Adoration ought to be a key practice of Advent. Likewise, we should increase our frequency of Daily Mass attendance, asking for the grace to receive Our Lord more perfectly each time. The Eucharist has a gravitational force about it in that the more you receive Our Lord, the more you desire to receive Him again. There is no better way to make real the goal of Advent than by allowing Our Lord to bestow this gift upon us.