ADVENT AND CHRISTMAS
To fulfill the mission of “spreading the knowledge of him everywhere, like an aroma” (2 Cor 2:14), the Church has divided the year into parts—called liturgical seasons—where each part has a big feast as a reference point.
The year is so marked by a succession of festivals that are meant to make us contemplate, one by one, all the aspects of the mystery of Christ “from the Incarnation to the Nativity until the Ascension, to Pentecost and to the waiting for the blessed hope of the return of the Lord” (SC 102).
Christmas and Advent
As civil year begins on January 1, the liturgical season follows another calendar. It starts with the first Sunday of Advent. It seems logical, in fact, that the events of the life of a character are presented from the day of his birth.
But it was not so from the beginnings of the Church. In the first century Christians had no other feast outside of the weekly celebration of the resurrection of the Lord. On the first day of the week—which until Constantine continued to be called the day of the sun and was a working day—they used to meet to hear the word of God, to celebrate the Eucharist and, in the early years, to share a meal. Then they would go back to their homes, bidding each other goodbye, until they meet again the following Sunday.
Not many years passed and the Church felt the need to dedicate a day for the commemoration of the culminating events of the life of Jesus, and for this Easter was instituted. Halfway the second century this feast has already spread in all the Christian communities. However, a day to celebrate the resurrection of Christ seemed not enough; it was thought then to prolong the joy of this feast for seven weeks, the 50 days of Pentecost.
The celebration of Christmas came in the Christian calendar much later. In 354 A.D. December 25 was set to commemorate the birth of Jesus. Obviously no document of the registry office of Nazareth was found—we know neither the exact date nor the exact year of Jesus’ birth. The choice comes from the fact that on this day the winter solstice and the approach of spring was celebrated in Rome. It was a festival celebrated with irrepressible joy because the sun was beginning to shine.
In the first centuries the Church used to reinterpret, rather than suppress, the rites and pagan ceremonies. So it was that the Christians, instead of banning crusades against the licentiousness of the Saturnalia, changed the name and meaning of the feast of the unconquered sun. They said: Jesus “comes from on high as a rising sun, shining on those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Lk 1:79); he is “the true light that enlightens everyone” (Jn 1:9) and “the radiant Morning Star” (Rev 22:16).
The artist who made the first Christian mosaic in Rome understood it—the mausoleum of the Julii, in the cemetery of the Vatican (250 A.D.)—which depicts Christ on the chariot of the sun.
Around the year 600 A.D., Christians believed that the celebration of Christmas was to be preceded by a time of preparation. Thus the Sundays of Advent were born. It was decided, therefore, to begin the liturgical year with the first of these Sundays, at the end of November or early December.
What does Advent mean?
For the pagans it indicated the coming of their god. On a certain day of the year they exhibited his statue for worship. They were convinced that he would make himself present in the midst of his faithful, ready to distribute his blessings and grant their favors. The word Advent also referred to the visit of a king to a city, or the day of the king’s coronation.
The Christians adopted this practice to the coming into the world of their God who manifested himself in Jesus. However, they reserved the term Advent to the period dedicated to the preparation for this visit.
At this point someone might rightly ask: but has not Jesus already come? Why then prepare as if he has to come again at another time?
Christmas is the birthday of Jesus and Advent is the time to prepare for it. Following the pagans’ practice, we prepare ourselves for the feast of the unconquered sun.
God’s ways are not our ways
You can expect a friend’s visit but not able to meet him. This happens when you are in the wrong place or time of the appointment.
It also happens with God. He has already come many times in human history. He showed the place where he can be met, but perhaps we have not understood well, because we end up waiting for him where he does not come.
I tried to list a few places where we expect him: we would like him to be in our sickness to give us health; during economic difficulties to resolve them with a fluke; in moments of solitude to make us meet the person with whom we can have a rapport; in failure to help us re-emerge and triumph; when there’s injustice to enforce our rights; during old age to restore a bit of vigor, freshness, clarity of youth… We pray to him intensely; we try to introduce him to our narrow horizons, to involve him in our projects; we suggest him not to miss the appointment. Lost, scanning the horizon, and he does not appear. He disappoints us, displaces us, and almost always disorients us.
At Birkenau, on Christmas Day, a group of women was led to the gas chamber. They attempted to escape, but were slaughtered en masse. Faced with this scene, the son of a rabbi cries: “God, show them your power; everything is against you.” Nothing happens. The boy then exclaims: “God does not exist!”
We ask God to show his strength and he appears on a cross; we want to win with him and for him, and he chooses defeat.
He never comes to fit in our dreams, but to realize his. It is not easy to find an appointment with him, understand the way, the time, the purpose of his coming. It is necessary to watch over ourselves, to be careful, to check, to screen our hopes and expectations to see if they coincide with what he offers us.
In the darkness of the primeval chaos, God came to bring his light (Gen 1:1-2). On the night of infertility he came to Abraham to offer his covenant and to promise him descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven (Gen 15). “While all was in quiet silence and the night was in the middle of its course” (Wis 18:14), he visited his people and freed them from the bondage of Pharaoh.
He comes to illuminate our nights: he comes in that moment of loss and pain, of alienation and despair, of humiliation and abandonment and introduces us to his peace. He particularly comes in that darkness produced by the incense that we burn on the altar of our idols—those senseless creatures we deify—money, success, health, children, scholarship, friendships…
They prevent us from living: they claim, demand, condition, assail up to deprive us of sleep and breathing. We suffer and we struggle, but we remain loyal to those chains that keep us enslaved. Jesus comes to set us free, but we have to get ready and wait for him on the streets where he usually passes.