Advent has come once more, bringing with it a new liturgical year. In a sense, we start afresh, partaking yet again of the graces given to us by “Christ in His mysteries”, as Bl. Columba Marmion was wont speak of the events in Our Lord’s life. In the parlance of the Desert Fathers, it is time “to make a beginning”.
Since becoming a novice oblate and reading the Holy Rule regularly I have come to see Advent as the season which best embodies the Prologue. From the first Epistle reading of the season we have St. Paul calling us to arise:
Understand, for it is now the hour for us to rise from sleep, because now our salvation is nearer than when we came to believe.
The Liturgy instills us with feelings of the Lord’s imminent return, and so tries by every means to rouse us from our torpor. Saint John the Baptist plays a prominent role during Advent, exhorting us to repent while we still have time, announcing the (second) coming of the Messiah. The canticle of Lauds, Vox clara ecce intonat, speaks of sleep and dreams and equates these with sickness and death, the deifying light of Christ being the cure for these.
A thrilling voice by Jordan rings,
rebuking guilt and darksome things:
vain dreams of sin and visions fly;
Christ in His might shines forth on high.
Now let each torpid soul arise,
that sunk in guilt and wounded lies;
see! the new Star’s refulgent ray
shall chase disease and sin away.
The following part of the Prologue reads almost identical to the canticle:
Let us arise, then, at last, for the Scripture stirs us up, saying, “Now is the hour for us to rise from sleep”. Let us open our eyes to the deifying light, let us hear with attentive ears the warning which the divine voice cries daily to us, “Today if you hear His voice, harden not your hearts”.
In the one [the canticle] it is the Forerunner calling us to repentance; in the other [the Rule], the Psalmist; in both we hear the Spirit, qui locutus est per prophetas.
The vesperal hymn Conditor alme siderum reinforces the Prologue’s imagery of service to the King of Kings:
At whose dread Name, majestic now,
all knees must bend, all hearts must bow;
and things celestial Thee shall own,
and things terrestrial Lord alone.
Going back to the theme of sleep, what does it mean to be asleep spiritually? Abba Paphnutius, in St. John Cassian’s Third Collation, while speaking about vocations explains what it means to be sleeping:
A vocation comes from God when our heart is inspired, sometimes even when we are asleep, and we are roused to a longing for eternal life and salvation, […]
To say that we are asleep means that we are sleepwalkers, that we have dulled our spiritual senses, completely oblivious to the fact that there is a supernatural life and without any notion that we have been redeemed, that God loves us and wants more for us than just this temporal life. The dreams mentioned are equated with sin. Why is that? Just as dreams have no real substance, so it is with sin. We chase after things, we fall into temptation and sin, hoping that whatever it is we’re doing (or not doing) will bring us happiness, but once the act is done – poof; that elusive happiness we thought we’d get by breaking the Lord’s Law is gone, leaving a rather foul taste in the mouth. And so we go about stumbling from “dream to dream”. Ultimately, however, these “dreams” make us sick; they poison our soul, they choke the eternal life out of us to the point that, if we persist in them we are no longer sleepwalkers, but walking dead.
As the world around us is already “celebrating the Christmas spirit” (having started even before Advent!) the latter part of this past Sunday’s Epistle jumped out at me:
Let us walk becomingly as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in debauchery and wantonness, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ.
How is it that we are living this Advent season? Are we living it like Christians – in a joyful spirit of anticipation, of prayer and penance – or are we living it as the sons and daughters of the age? Is this time of the year a time that we give into our passions, or a time when we reign them in? Do we stress needlessly about the gifts that we’re going to give or preparations for Christmas parties/dinners? Is it an occasion for us to try to “keep up with the Joneses”? And for those of us with children, do we take the time to tell them a deeper meaning behind the “naughty and nice list” and why they’re given presents if they’re good?
In fine, is it a time when we put on the spirit of the world, or a time when we prepare to put on Christ? Are we in a deep sleep, or are we vigilant, with our lamps full of oil?