The liturgical year has come full circle and we find ourselves immersed in Advent once again. I thought I would comment a bit on my experience of Advent; it is not my place here to give a profound explanation of what this liturgical season is (there are plenty of sites that have done it far better than I ever could); the aim is simply to share my personal experience.
I still recall the joy of my first Advent after returning to the Church. For the first time I would be celebrating Christmas properly – for the correct reasons – and I set about preparing clumsily for it. I guess you might describe it as the joy of a child awaiting Christmas day, anticipating all the presents they will receive. The short days, growing smaller all the while, seemed to impress upon me the idea of anticipation all the more, as if nature itself was “building up” to that climatic point. Going to midnight Mass for the first time (while not the most reverent of celebrations), the fire blazing outside in the cold night air, kissing the foot of the Infant at the end of Mass – all these things left quite an impression on me.
Upon returning to the Church I had heard a number of times that each liturgical season can be lived differently, but I never understood it until I actually experienced it. In the ensuing years Advent assumed different shades, always colored by the Liturgy: with Mary, while expecting our firstborn; another time, with the Patriarchs of old, as a sojourner in a foreign land, far from family, awaiting deliverance; yet another, vigilant with the wise virgins; …
My favourite liturgical seasons are the “penitential” seasons of Advent and Lent. While I guess one would expect a Christian to live with greater intensity Christmastide or Pascha, for example, I think I’m still not at that stage. I’m still earlier down the line; I still enjoy greatly the differences in the Liturgy during these periods, the expectation that comes with them, and am a bit saddened when they are gone. Once Pascha is over I normally begin to wonder how long until Advent is upon us once again so that the whole cycle can start anew.
A friend of mine (who is immersed in both the Byzantine and Roman rites) once told me that perhaps the greatest element of the Roman rite in comparison to the Byzantine would be the Liturgical Year; that, grosso modo, the Byzantine year focuses more on particular feasts, while the Roman has more elaborate seasons. I think the end and beginning of the Liturgical Year show how it is a seamless cycle. One passes from the end of the post-Pentecostal season, with all its apocalyptic imagery and emphasis on the Four Last Things into the Advent Season with its emphasis on the coming of the Son of Man. It is a beautifully woven tapestry. During this time of year I often get to thinking if we Christians, at least in the Western world, have not lost the “apocalyptic” dimension of our faith. Do we live as though we expected the Son of Man to return any time soon? Do we live in expectation, in a mix of joy and fear of the one who will come to judge the living and the dead and the age by fire?
Advent for me has become in these past years a time of expectation, of vigilance, of watching. The Lesson at Compline Fratres: sobrii estote et vigilate seems all the more pertinent. This season, while not as penitential the Lenten, seems to me to invite one to reflect more on one’s personal sinfulness, especially given the connection that it has to season just ended. While members of the Mystical Body of Christ we are still sojourners in this valley of tears; we still feel the effects of sin/death. Like the Patriarchs of old, we await the coming of the Messiah to take us into Paradise, to lead us into that day with no end. Those beautiful O Antiphons sung before the Magnificat the week before Christmas day connect us with the Old Testament; we are reminded that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is our God, and that we are the sons of Father Abraham. The antiphons of the Little Hours (which are the part of the Office which I normally find easier to pray) during this season speak to us about His coming, fostering in us this expectation. Through the Advent Liturgy the Bride of Christ seems to sing to her Bridegroom “Maranatha”, to which He replies “Ero cras”.
Building a family of our own, my wife and I talk about bringing in traditions to help immerse our children the life of the Church. Strangely enough, coming from a traditionally Catholic country we have received hardly any Advent traditions from our ancestors. Obviously there is the Nativity scene, but little more than that: very rarely tales of things that are vaguely remembered from when parents and grandparents were children but which, for reasons unknown, were never handed down. And so one is left to “invent” traditions, to find what one can and incorporate it family life, that they may take root and give life to someday truly be called a family tradition.