Our church building here at All Saints is somewhat less than completely user-friendly. I wanted to have some Advent-appropriate decorations in the church, but was faced with the question of where to put them. There is no single focal point in this room; the things that usually provide a focal point in a church are scattered around the place.
One of the various, scattered appointments in this church building is the Ambry, where the holy oils are kept; on the wall opposite the Ambry is a second, similar display case. For quite a while I have been looking for something to do with that display case that would be appropriate to its location in the church. Recently, I was able to acquire from an antiques dealer a page from a Seventeenth Century antiphonal. You can have a look at it after Mass. It has a set of chant tones to be used during the Easter season.
When I showed this to the musician who plays the two Sunday morning Masses, she proclaimed it to be “holy.” I was a little confused by her choice of words. I think she meant “Churchy,” in a positive sense. I think she was saying that it was appropriate to its location near the baptismal font. The Easter season chant tones are expressions of the holy joy associated with the Easter Sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. Our Sunday morning musicians’ choice of the word “holy” made me laugh, but it might provide a good perspective on this Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word.
Mark’s Gospel says that John the Baptist “was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, ” and that “he fed on locusts and wild honey.” (Mark 1:6) His clothing and diet speak volumes about him. This line from the Gospel says, basically, that John the Baptist was a prophet, and a “holy” man.
The vivid detail about John the Baptist’s clothing was intended to remind the Gospel reader of the prophet Elijah. Elijah dressed in “a hairy garment with a leather belt around his waist.” (2 Kings 1:8) The comparison between Elijah and John the Baptist would have been helpful to the Gospel’s original readers. At the time of Jesus’ ministry, there was a common expectation that the prophet Elijah would return (he had been taken up to heaven before his death, 2 Kings 2:1-11), to announce the coming of the Messiah. Mark’s Gospel portrays the ministry of John the Baptist as the fulfillment of this popular expectation.
John’s unusual diet had precedent as well in the Hebrew Scriptures. Locusts and wild honey were not only readily available in the desert where John lived and preached, they were also kosher. Even in extreme circumstances he maintained ritual purity. In short, John the Baptist was a “holy” man whose righteousness was proclaimed by the clothing of a prophet and the food of a stringently observant Jew. We might find the details of John the Baptist’s life to be unusual, but I think those details can provide a good perspective on the season of Advent.
In secular society this time of year is dedicated to recovering from over-eating on Thanksgiving, accumulating gifts to be given on Christmas and stressing about Christmas parties. In a sense, it addresses all the needs of American culture: the need for drama and the need to acquire unnecessary possessions.
On the Church’s calendar, however, this time of the year has an entirely different meaning. In Catholicism, Advent is a season of preparation for Christmas, but neither this preparation, nor this Christmas, have the same meaning that they have in secular culture. In secular society Christmas has become just one further iteration of conspicuous consumption; Christmas in the Catholic Faith, however, is an eschatological (concerning the Last Judgment), allegory.
Think back to the eschatological allegory of the sheep and the goats that was in the Gospel reading two weeks ago. The Shepherd-King represented Jesus. The sheep represented those who welcomed Jesus’ apostles; the goats were those who provided no faithful welcome to Jesus’ word. The fictional story taught a valuable lesson about daily life: real faith demonstrates the real evidence of welcoming God’s Word.
The allegory of Christmas can be interpreted in the same manner as the allegory of the sheep and the goats. The infant in the manger is the humble king who relates to God’s People in the way that a shepherd relates to his sheep. The parents of the child, and those who come to worship, are the ones who welcome the Word. The message proclaimed is one of salvation for those who welcome God’s will with sincere hearts.
Advent is a season of preparing for the event announced by the allegory of Christmas. Christmas, for Catholics, is not the commemoration of an event in the past; the past event associated with Christmas (Jesus’ birth), is part of the story line of the allegory. The Infancy Narratives in the Gospel were inspired by the Passion Narratives preached by the Apostles. The stories about Jesus’ birth were meant to explain further the meaning of his death and the promise we receive in his Resurrection.
Christmas, for Catholics, is an expression of hope for the resurrection and rebirth of all creation. Our preparations then, during this Advent season, ought to be focused on making ourselves ready for Jesus’ return in glory. Simply stated, the “holy” appearance and diet of John the Baptist instruct us to make this season of preparation “holy.”
What does it mean to make Advent a “holy” season? The answer to this is given in the Gospel. John the Baptist was the humble precursor of the messiah. He said, “I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.” (Mark 1:7) Jesus is the humble Savior sent to preach good news to the world. The first step in making Advent “holy” is to strive to practice humility. Humility means sharing some of our blessings with the less fortunate. It means avoiding the selfish acts that separate us from God and one another. It also means cultivating a constant awareness of the gratitude we owe to God. John the Baptist proclaimed the “One mightier than I.” (Mark 1:7) Humility means acknowledging God’s sovereignty over us.
We make the season of Advent “holy” by our attention to God’s Word in the Scriptures; a little more time each day in prayer with the Scriptures is an appropriate celebration of the season. We make the season of Advent “holy” by our attention to the presence of Jesus in the Sacraments; a little more attention to our participation in Liturgy is an appropriate preparation for Christmas. We make the season of Advent “holy” by giving witness to our faith through acts of charity toward those in need. Another excellent way to witness to our faith is to be gentle and humble reminders to those around us that Christmas is much less about what we get, and much more about what we give to God: our welcome and our allegiance.
Advent is a holy season that intends to make us holy; personally, this is a much more attractive possibility than the one held out by secular society. To live in humility and faithfulness is a demanding task, but much more attractive than living with stress and overindulgence. By necessity, all of us celebrate both the secular and the sacred aspects of Advent and Christmas. We don’t have the option to separate ourselves from the world around us, nor should we desire that option. However, we do have the ability to choose where we give our attention and what we welcome into our lives. John the Baptist gave witness to the way to live a holy life, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” (Mark 1:3)