Today is the first Sunday of Advent and the beginning of a new liturgical year for Catholics. The season of Advent began its existence as a penitential practice; hence, the use of purple vestments during the season. Originally, Advent, like Lent, lasted for a period of forty days. Like Lent, Advent was a season of fasting and penance.
The reason that Advent was a season of fasting is not one that might be obvious to us today; it was not for the purpose of losing the weight gained at Thanksgiving. Originally, Advent was the period of proximate preparation for adults approaching Baptism. For this reason, Advent imitated Lent, the Church’s more ancient season of preparation for Baptism.
In the early middle ages, the Church organized a wide-spread effort to evangelize the pagans living in the rural parts of western Europe. Many of the religious customs of those pagan peoples were reinterpreted in order to communicate the Gospel message in terms they could understand easily. Today, we still practice those formerly pagan religious customs. Advent wreaths, Christmas trees, holly, mistletoe, and the like, began their lives as pagan religious customs associated with the winter solstice. They were reinterpreted, and given Christian meanings, in order to explain Christian beliefs to illiterates.
Later, of course, these holiday practices were reinterpreted again, multiple times. In the seventeenth century, the celebration of Christmas was prohibited by law in many English-speaking countries. In England, by the nineteenth century, Christmas had become a purely secular celebration, much as it is in the United States today.
These modern reinterpretations of Christmas were driven primarily by political commitments. As one might expect, they spawned resistance on the part of those who disagreed with the politics of those in power. In recent years, a popular reaction against the secularization of Christmas is the proliferation of Christmas-themed drive-through displays and pageants. The attempt to re-Christianize Christmas, however, has not been a complete success; one of the largest local Christmas attractions is sponsored by a religious group not associated with Christianity at all.
At this point, you might have guessed that I am about to advocate for an overtly religious, that is, Catholic, reclamation of Christmas. The reclamation of the true meaning of Christmas that I’d like to advocate is not, however, one commonly represented by popular culture or conventional religious sentiment.
I am fully in favor of the seasonal generosity that leads people to contribute to charities at this time of year. The Offertory collection from Thanksgiving Day, for example, was given to FEAST, a food pantry that serves the disadvantaged in the area surrounding our parish. I am also fully in favor of the sentiment that laments the fact that such generosity is, most often, merely seasonal; if it is virtuous to support charitable organizations during the Christmas season, it is equally as virtuous to do so year-round.
I am, however, not recommending any of the above. The reclamation of the true meaning of Christmas that I would like to advocate is one taken from the early medieval observance of Advent as a penitential season. I’d like to suggest that we, as a parish, observe this Advent as a season of fasting, penance, and almsgiving.
Yes, I know, that some of you just tuned me out, and others saw in my suggestion an opportunity to lose a few pounds. Before you make up your mind about Advent this year, however, please attend to what I’m suggesting. I’m suggesting that, as a parish, we make this Advent season a time of preparation dedicated to being more faithful to our Baptismal vows.
You are probably wondering what Advent and Christmas have to do with Baptism. The connection is a simple, but profound one. Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation of God’s Word; we give thanks that the Word of God took on our human existence in order to ransom us from slavery to sin. Baptism is our participation in the salvation that God offers to the world. A celebration of the Incarnation that ignores Baptism is not really a celebration of the Incarnation. For that reason, I’m suggesting that we observe the seasons of Advent and Christmas as celebrations of Baptism.
In order to give appropriate thanks to God for the gift of Baptism, I’m suggesting a fast, and specifically, a fast from worry. American secular culture lives in a perennial season of worry, and the secular commitment to worry has trickled down to reinterpret Christmas.
Advent and Christmas have become seasons of worry: worry about meal preparation, worry about decorating, worry about gift-giving, worry about bill-paying, worry about behavior (one’s own and one’s relatives’), and myriad other forms of worry. I’m suggesting a fast from worry because worry and fear are rejections of faith and trust.
If you find that you need an alternative to worry – something to keep you occupied during the time that would ordinarily dedicate to worrying about shopping, gift-giving, or bill-paying – there are numerous opportunities during the holiday season to perform acts of kindness and mercy toward others. All of the local charitable organizations need extra help at this time of year. Perhaps, your neighbors need extra help at this time of year. Perhaps, your family members would benefit from having your full attention rather than your distracted worry.
There are many, more faithful alternatives to worry. Fasting from worry does not need to create boredom or inactivity in your daily life. In fact, it ought to create a more immediate sense of God’s presence.
Faith and fear are mutually exclusive commitments. Baptism is a commitment to trust in God and to be trustworthy to one’s neighbor. We can make Advent and Christmas a season of trust or we can participate in the secular season of worry and anxiety. This Advent season, I recommend fasting from worry and everything else that is an obstacle to greater faith in God.