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Recovering Advent

By Russell Hardiman

Advent needs encouragement, even focus, so as to draw attention to the reason for the season in spite of the many counter claims for attention operative in our society at that time.

While Christmas has been on people’s minds for several weeks, and on the commercial operators’ minds for several months, it is often quite difficult to focus attention on the weeks of Advent as a season. 

These difficulties can emerge from the educational context at the end of the school year and the promise of holidays, from the secular context of the commercial season, as well as from the confusion of political correctness in which specific Christian symbols are judged by some as offensive to Australians of other faith traditions.

Even the origins of Advent are somewhat obscure and that underscores the lack of focus. They certainly are not as clear historically as the season of Lent as a preparation for Easter. This leaves us with a double dilemma that while Easter theologically is at the heart of the Christian message in Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection, that is not readily understood by most people including many Christians. 

On the other hand, the spirit of Christmas can be understood at one level at least, because everybody can relate to the warm image of a cuddly baby, even if they don’t always see the deeper dimension that Christmas is more than the baby, it is the adult who is the object of our interest.  In contrast to Lent the inclination to do something special for Advent is nowhere near as common.

The confusion about Advent is perhaps traceable to its origins, which are not primarily in the Western Church of Europe but in the Eastern Church, where it subsequently developed more substantially. We see a clue to this dual dimension in the way the Gospels of the fourth Sunday of Advent are always focused on the events immediately prior to the mystery of Christ’s birth. We have the Gospels of the Annunciation and Visitation. This focus on Mary is an insight into the tradition in the early centuries in the East where there was a mobile feast of Mary on the Sunday before Christmas celebrating the conception of Jesus. 

This was balanced out with the major incarnation celebration in the Epiphany of Jesus as manifested in his Baptism in the Jordan. This still continues in the Eastern tradition which, on January 6th celebrates the Incarnation as embracing the birth of Jesus, the adoration of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, and including the marriage feast at Cana.  In the East, these are all seen as the manifestation of Jesus in his divinity revealed in his humanity. 

Interestingly, in the 2002 Third Edition of the Roman Missal (yet to be released in English) has an Illustration facing the pages for the feast of Epiphany, incorporating all four of these manifestations of the humanity of Jesus as the liturgical steps in celebrating the Incarnation.

In the rites of the Western churches the emphasis was taken from the word adventus, used by the Romans to express the coming of a God to the temple or the coming of a God as emperor. This was refined further in the first four centuries, when the eschatological expectation of the return of Christ as judge was very prominent in the Christian community. This meant a natural flow from the final weeks of the Church’s year and the feast of Christ the King in which the Christian faithful had great expectation of the return of Christ as King and Judge. 

Only in the fifth century in Spain and Gaul was a feature made of the five or six weeks of preparation that aimed at the January 6th Incarnation festival. In the sixth century in northern Italy this was reduced to four weeks when Gregory the Great adapted for the Church of Rome this novel event of celebrating Christ’s birth on December 25th. It also had the positive dimension in the Imperial Era of the Church that the Church could baptise or re-shape other traditions, so that the Roman feast of the birth of the unconquered Sun corresponding to the Winter Solstice, now became the feast of the birth of the Son of God.

The challenge today is to find refreshing ways of drawing life from the secular and commercial accretions of our culture. The attention given to family life and outreach is one quality that needs to be reaffirmed and encouraged all the year long. The focus on food and drink is a natural part of family life, yet in the era of the global village, we need to show our awareness of our brothers and sisters at every level. The phenomenon of gift giving should be measured, not so much in the cost or commercial advertising associated with the popularity of the latest thing, but with the personal expression of good will and of shared talent and capacity which results in the shared gifts which are the fruit of the earth and work of human hands

These words, taken from the Roman Missal’s preparation of the Eucharistic gifts, remind us of the very meaning of the word Christmas is Christ’s Mass. This means that not only this day but every Sunday indeed, every day, can be the expression of our consciousness of God’s gift to us because it is the source of God’s blessing with and through the infant King of Bethlehem.

The Rev Dr Russell Hardiman is Associate Professor in the College of Theology, University of Notre Dame.


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