Many Catholics remember when Advent was a penitential season, secondary to Lent but a time of penance, nonetheless. The former penitential nature of Advent derived from Advent’s historical origins.
Originally, Advent was an adaptation of Lent for the rural pagans in northern Europe who worshiped the winter solstice. In an attempt to evangelize those pagan peoples, the Church adapted and reinterpreted some pagan practices in order to explain the Gospel message. One of those adaptations led to adult baptism being performed at Christmas (the winter solstice) rather than Easter. This novel practice gave rise to several other innovations, some of which remain in vestigial form today. The practice of “Midnight Mass” is one of those surviving vestiges. Called “Mass at Night” in the Roman Missal and Liturgical Calendar, “Midnight Mass” is what remains of the Christmas Vigil Service at which adults were baptized in the early middle ages.
The Advent season was invented as an analog to Lent; it was intended to be a period of proximate preparation for Baptism. The former penitential nature of Advent was part of the preparation done by those pagans who had asked to be admitted to Baptism. As we no longer perform adult baptisms at Christmas, Advent has lost its penitential character. It exists today as a period of preparation prior to Christmas.
The current practice of Advent begs the question about the nature of the preparation we are to do. What are we preparing for and how are we to prepare? There are many possible responses to this question. In secular society, the weeks before Christmas are a period of last-minute shopping and full-time stressing. In American civil religion, Advent is an incremental escalation of sentimentality about a cultural holiday. In Catholicism, Advent is a preparation for the Last Day, the Lord’s return in glory, and the Final Judgment.
As a period of preparation for the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation, Advent is intended to be a period of hopeful expectation, that is, faithful waiting. This news is probably more disappointing than the fact that Advent asks us to look forward to the consummation of history. It’s bad enough to be asked to trade our self-interests for an awareness of the Lord’s return; it’s intolerable to be told to wait.
Waiting, faithful or otherwise, is not considered a virtue in our culture. Waiting in line for the cashier at a store is a severe test of one’s coping skills. Next Day Delivery can seem to require heroic patience. The increasing and, therefore, slowing traffic at this time of year is fuel for frustration’s fires. There is very little that is worth waiting for; this might be the root of our society’s troubles.
Waiting has little value unless one is waiting for something of enduring value. Sadly, most the things we wait for have no lasting value. Material possessions, personal accomplishments, the exercise of power – all these last for a brief time; when they are gone, we are left empty, wanting, impatient, and dissatisfied. If I had to guess, I would say that the vast majority of those who are anxious about the pandemic-related changes in their lives owe their anxiety to the fact that they have nothing worth waiting for.
Advent portrays life in a different light. Advent illumines a hope that endures and a destiny worth the wait. Advent reveals human existence as created to recognize God’s presence and to find joy in that presence. Advent is a time of preparation, of hopeful expectation and faithful waiting for the completion and perfection of Creation.
Those who believe in God’s providence and mercy recognize Advent’s hopeful anticipation as a familiar experience. Advent is a brief parable about human existence: time passes slowly when counted and much too fast when ignored; soon our time ends, and we face a reckoning about how we lived. I’ve never met a person who didn’t want to be prepared for the end of their lives, but I’ve met very few who felt as if they were adequately prepared.
Those who spend their lives in hopeful expectation of the fulfillment of God’s promises know the irreplaceable value of each moment because each moment of one’s life is an opportunity to be found doing the right thing, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah.
On this first Sunday of Advent, you might ask yourself what you are preparing for? Are you preparing for more impatience or for the approach of God’s perfection?