Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
1st Sunday of Advent, C
November 30, 2003
Jer 33:14-16; Ps 25; 1 Thes3:12-4:2; Lk21:25-28,34-36
1) Today we begin a new liturgial year. Sometimes Christians find this a little strange, that in the Church New Year’s Day begins today, rather than about a month from now. But, when you come to think about it, it’s today that makes all the sense in the world and next month that makes little. Our liturgical year traces the life of Christ, from the time when the Jews anxiously awaited his appearance (Advent proper), to his time in the womb, to his birth, to his being greeted by the Shepherds and the angels, to his flight into Egypt and return, to his presentation and finding in the temple, to his forty days in the desert praying and fasting, to his baptism, to his public ministry, to his miracles, to his going up to Jerusalem and entering her on a donkey, to his last Supper, to his agony, trial, crucifixion and death, to his resurrection, ascension, sending forth the Holy Spirit, and ultimately to his return in glory which we anticipated in a special way last week on the feast of Christ the King. This is what the liturgical year means. Jesus said to us 27 times in the Gospel, “Follow me!” and each liturgical year we do just that, tracing his footsteps along the route of salvation history, trying to become more and more like him whom we’re following.
2) Compared to this, the civil year means very little. Can anyone tell me the reason why we celebrate the civil New Year on January 1? The historical reason is because in 46 BC, Julius Caesar decreed that the year would begin with the month of January. Those who took classical Latin in high school probably remember that the Romans would start their months 8 days prior, with the Kalens. That meant that the month of January would actually begin on the 8th Kalens of January, which would be December 22 in our calendar, the shortest day of the year. On this day there would be the “birth” of the new sun, which would grow over the next six months and then proceed on its denouement. The month was called January after the pagan god Janus, the god with two-faces, one looking forward, and the other backward, because the month dedicated to him would look back on the old year and forward to the new. I trust that this tradition means very little to you, and yet most of us will make plans to celebrate it, even though it makes little more sense to us than the words of Auld Lang’s Syne… Today’s new year’s day in the Church, however, should mean quite a bit more to us. It is now that the Church wants us to make new year’s resolutions to make sure we make this new liturgical year a real “year of the Lord.”
3) We start the liturgical year with the season of Advent, a word that literally means “coming toward.” We mark the fact that the Lord is coming toward us and we need to prepare for his coming. The Lord Jesus is coming first in history, just over 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, and we’re called in this time to prepare for him so that we might not reject his presence like the inn-keepers in the ancient city of David. Just as President Bush surprised the soldiers and the world by flying to Baghdad on Thanksgiving Day, putting his life at risk to bring joy to our brave soldiers in a faraway land, so Jesus came from heaven and not only risked his life but gave his life to bring us in this land faraway from heaven the fullness joy through salvation. We prepare for that coming of Christ into the world each year, because we can never exhaust the meaning the incredible love that is involved in such an action. During Advent, we also prepare for the Lord’s coming at the end of history, at the culmination of time — on the clouds with power and glory, as he says in today’s Gospel. We’re called to “lift up our souls” to the Lord, as we prayed in the responsorial psalm, and to “stand erect and raise our heads,” as Jesus tells us in the Gospel, “because our redemption is close at hand.” The best way we get ready for both comings is, frankly, by preparing really well and embracing with all our mind, heart, soul and strength the Mass, in which the same Lord who came in Bethlehem in the past and will come on the clouds in the future comes into our bodies and souls in the present.
4) The readings that the Church gives us today present a sharp contrast between those who prepare well and those who prepare poorly. In the Gospel, Jesus contrasts those who are AWAKE and ALERT with those who are “asleep” or “drowsy.” Those who are preparing well, Jesus says, are “vigilant at all times.” They are those who “pray that they may have the strength to escape the imminent tribulations to stand before the Son of Man.” Those who are preparing poorly, on the other hand, allow their hearts to become drowsy from “carousing and drunkeness and the anxieties of daily life.” In other words, their hearts fall asleep either because of too much concern with human pleasures (carousing and drunkenness) or too much concern with human problems (the anxieties of daily life). St. Paul tells us in the second reading how to keep our hearts from falling asleep in either of these two ways. “So as strengthen your hearts,” he says, “to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus… INCREASE and ABOUND in love for one another and for all, just as we have for you.” In other words, the best defense is a good offense. To prevent one’s heart from falling asleep like the residents of ancient Bethlehem or those who will be caught off-guard at the end of time, we’re called, with the Lord’s help, to increase and abound in love, just as St. Paul did. We’re called to grow in love, loving Christ as he loves us and loving others as Christ loves them. In other words, in order not to fall asleep, we have to stay awake by loving. In order not to fall down the hill through temptation and sin, we have to be climbing up the hill of love. As Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen used to say, there are no plateaus in the spiritual life; we’re either going up hill, or we’re sliding down hill. At the beginning of this liturgical year, we’re called to make concrete resolutions to go up hill with the Lord, to increase and abound and grow in love of the Lord.
5) I would like to propose a few resolutions for you to consider in order to live this Advent well and have it change your life, so that you’ll grow in love of the Lord and be more awake, vigilant and at prayer to meet the Lord whenever or whever he comes.
a) Daily Mass — The best way to prepare to meet the Lord is to come to meet him each day in his real presence in the Eucharist. Moreover, the readings and the prayers of each day in Advent are extremely beautiful and powerful, yet most Catholics never profit from them. I would strongly encourage all those who can come to daily Mass to come, so as to be prepared as the Church has prepared Christians for centuries — through the liturgy. If you cannot come to Mass each day, however, I would urge you at least to get a copy of the readings for Advent and read them each day.
b) Daily Personal Prayer — We’re all called to “increase” and “abound” in prayer during this season. In prayer we go out to meet the Lord who is coming for us in an embrace of love. Jesus tells us, “at all times be vigilant and pray.” To live this season well, to live this liturgical year well, we must pray more and better. To do so, we must first make time for prayer, and then use that time well. This week we have our first Friday adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, which is a great opportunity to grow in prayer. Also, as you know, each month I do a morning of recollection here at Sacred Heart Chapel, in which every month the theme of my conferences is on how to pray more effectively. We will be having the next recollection on December 13, and the theme will be “Living Advent with Mary,” in which we’ll prayerfully reflect on how she teaches us to receive the Lord with the save fervor and devotion which which she received him. I make these suggestions to give you concrete action items, but in prayer with the Lord, ask him how he wants YOU to pray. While the type of the form of prayer may vary, daily prayer is essential in the life of a Christian. Without it, a Christian is in great spiritual danger. As the Holy Father wrote a couple of years ago, “It would be wrong to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life. Especially in the face of the many trials to which today’s world subjects faith, they would be not only mediocre Christians but ‘Christians at risk.’ They would run the insidious risk of seeing their faith progressively undermined, and would perhaps end up succumbing to the allure of ‘substitutes,’ accepting alternative religious proposals and even indulging in far-fetched superstitions.”
c) Family prayer — Our families, our homes, are called to be “domestic churches,” where God is served, praised and loved above all. They’re called to be true “houses of prayer,” where Christ is welcomed and received as the most important guest. Advent is a time when most of our houses normally take on a more outwardly Christian appearance, with the appearances of creches and the various things that in our culture are associated with Christmas, from Christmas lights to Christmas trees. But all of these decorations would mean very little unless they were accompanied by hearts that were adorned with the love of the Lord, with those who were living for the Lord’s coming and presence.
6) One concrete way to pray at home is to imitate what we’re going to do today in Church, by lighting the Advent wreath. Last year at my parish, I did an informal poll, of kids, of older daily Mass goers, of various people after the Thanksgiving Mass to see if people really know what the Advent wreath is all about. No one could really tell me anything more than that there are four candles, you light one each week and the pink candle gets lit the third week. No one could tell me why we do any of these things. I’m sure things would be better here, right? This lack of knowledge is of course partly the fault of priests, because we don’t talk about it very often. So at this beginning of Advent, I’ll briefly describe what the Advent wreath is, where it comes from, what it means and why the Church uses it and urges you to use it at home each day during Advent.
a) First, what we do with the Advent wreath — The Advent Wreath is made of evergreens and may be any size. There are four candles, one for each week of Advent. The color of the candle is not an essential factor because the symbolism is primarily in the flame. It is traditional that three of the candles be violet or purple, the traditional color of Advent, and one is rose. The rose candle is lit the third Sunday of Advent, for this color anticipates and symbolizes the Christmas joy announced in the first word of the Entrance Antiphon: “Rejoice” (Latin, Gaudete). For this reason the Third Sunday is also called Gaudete Sunday, and rose color vestments can be worn.
b) Second, the origin of the Advent wreath — In ancient Germany, there was a tradition among the pagans to light candles on a wreath as they approached the cold December darkness of the winter solstice and, as the days got shorter and colder, to gather evergreen wreaths and lighted fires as signs of hope in a coming spring and renewed light. Eventually the Christians, with St. Boniface, came to evangelize these people and they were converted, but they still clung to this tradition in which they were basically calling upon the pagan gods. So the Church, as she’s done many times, “Christianized” the practice, which takes us to the third point, what the meaning of the Advent wreath is for Christians today.
c) The meaning of the Advent wreath — The Advent Wreath is used to unite ourselves spiritually to the Jews in anticipation of the Messiah, to represent the long time when people lived in spiritual darkness, waiting for the coming of Jesus, the Light of the world. Each year in Advent people wait once again in darkness for the coming of the Lord: his historical coming in the mystery of Bethlehem, his final coming at the end of time, and his special coming in every moment of grace. The most important thing is the FLAME, which symbolizes Christ, the Light of the World, and our longing for the light of his truth and for the warmth of his love, which is everlasting, as is symbolized by the evergreen wreath which will never lose its color.
d) What are you supposed to do with it? During Advent, the Church calls upon you to gather as a family each day and light the candle together, surrounded by expectation, prayers and Advent hymns like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” which we sang to begin this Mass. This will help you and your family await Christ who is coming for you. It will help you to pray as a family, which is the most important thing you can be doing as a family. It will also help to make sure this time of preparation for Christmas is really Christian, rather than a time when our hearts “become drowsy” by the “carousing and drunkenness” due to spiked egg-nog at Christmas parties or by the “daily anxieties” of shopping, wrapping paper, cards, long lines at stores, etc. This type of familial prayer in Advent will help us each day to get spiritually ready for Christmas, so that Christmas might be that long-awaited joyous, HOLY day God wants it to be for us.
e) By the use of the Advent wreath at home, the Church ultimately hopes that — in lighting that flame of expectant love each day like the five wise virgins who always keep their lamps lit for the return of the Bridegroom, Jesus — you yourselves will BECOME THE CANDLES of that wreath of everlasting love, burning with a Light that will illuminate the darkness of those outside, who have lost the meaning of Christmas and the meaning of human life. God wants you to become that candle, burning with his flame and reflecting his light to a world that so much needs to see him.
7) Each Advent is a gift of the Lord, to bring us back to what is most important in life. On this first day of this new liturgical year, on this first day of the rest of our lives, let us ask the Lord for the grace to make this a holy year, a year of prayer, a year of increased love. The Lord is coming! Let us go out to meet him!