As I write this article we are still a few days from Christmas. The gifts have been purchased (mostly), the tree is trimmed, the Christmas roast is seasoned, work is done (for now) and the excitement among our kids grows (even among our teen-agers). And yet we remain in Advent, aware that this special time has not yet arrived. When this article is published we will be close to the end of the Christmas season, a happenstance that inspired me to reflect on the importance of these Liturgical Seasons and how central this way of marking time is to the Church and the world.
“Time is short.” “Time is money.” “Quality time.” “Time flies when you are having fun.” “Time management.” We are all familiar with these references to time and its importance in our lives. In many ways, we are slaves to time in that it often controls our disposition, actions and decisions. And yet, the Church offers a distinctive way to measure time that, rooted in our earthly rhythms, puts us in touch with the timeless eternity of God. By observing the cycle of the year marked by Advent, Christmas, Lent, the Triduum, Easter and Ordinary Time, we more deeply immerse ourselves in the mystery of Christ. Time, in this sense, becomes a Sacramental experience of God’s grace.
In the secular world, the “Christmas season” now corresponds more to the commercial aspect of Christmas. It seems like it starts earlier and earlier every year. The Christmas radio stations are in full swing after Halloween. Now please don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that we should wait until Christmas day to break out the Bing Crosby and Andy Williams tunes, but I think we all know that it probably isn’t such a healthy thing that this precious time, centrally about Jesus Christ, is driven by profits!
Advent, rather, is such a beautiful time of hopeful expectation that teaches us essential truths about being prepared for Christ’s entry into the world, into our lives every day and at the end of time. A part of the Advent season that we should seek to recover is the penitential aspect. Traditionally called “a little Lent,” Advent is also a time for increased prayer, fasting and almsgiving. I think it is nearly impossible that Advent would ever feel like Lent and its necessary sparsity. Nonetheless, aren’t making sacrifices, giving to charity, volunteering one’s time, and praying more all necessary to prepare our souls for the birth of Christ? Given the immense abundance in our society, is Advent not also a way to more deeply connect with those around us who are disadvantaged, who lack material resources, or who lack health in mind, body or spirit? By recovering this penitential aspect of Advent, we can both please God and become more fully human at the same time.
In preparation for this Advent, I used the Hallow app on my phone to pray more regularly throughout the season, using beautiful reflections and readings to help me focus on my Spiritual preparation for Christmas. I also refrained from many of the sweets so common this time of year, and found ways to share what God has given me. While hardly heroic in my efforts, I hope this allowed me to more fully celebrate the Nativity of our Lord, recognize how Christ comes to me on a daily basis in those around me, and be truly prepared for my own personal judgment.
In the Church’s Liturgical calendar, the Christmas season begins on Christmas Eve and concludes on the Baptism of the Lord. That is actually more than the 12 days with which most of us are familiar! Once again due to Covid-19, this Christmas season is impacting our ability to see family and friends. This is a shame because that is such a primary part of the tradition of the season. Nonetheless, we can still honor traditions by fully participating in the Christmas Liturgies, giving thoughtful gifts out of love, displaying our Nativity scenes and lighting our homes for our local communities to see. It is a small but important witness to keep those decorations up until the end of the Christmas season (or until Lent if you want!) and not take them down the day after Christmas! Perhaps you could reach out to loved ones with whom you have lost touch, or who may need some support. Gently invite a family member to come home to the Church during this wondrous season, and let the beauty of our traditions do the evangelizing for you! Look for ways to serve those in need. Continue to celebrate, and find ways to give small gifts, material or otherwise, until the Baptism of the Lord.
Most importantly, if we truly immerse ourselves in the Advent and Christmas seasons, we will more fully experience the intense love of God that we feel in such a powerful way at Christmastime. We will draw closer to Mary, who is so central to this time, and as a consequence, closer to her Son. By doing so, God will give us a reservoir of grace and we can proclaim along with the reformed Scrooge in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”: “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”
Anchor columnist Peter Shaughnessy is president/principal of Bishop Stang High School in North Dartmouth. He resides in Fairhaven with his wife, Anabela Vasconcelos Shaughnessy (Class of ’94), and their four children: Luke (Class of ’24), Emilia (Class of ’25), Dominic (Class of ’27) and Clare (Class of ’30).