Today is the First Sunday of Advent in many Christian churches. Time for the Gates of Vienna image to appear.
This is the beginning of the new liturgical year, a cyclical commemoration that begins with the season of Advent and follows with the Octave of Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and ends with the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. The Sundays following Epiphany vary, depending on when Lent begins, and that is dependent on when Easter occurs – which is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Spring Equinox. Which is why, unless you’re an astronomer, it’s best to just look up on the calendar.
Anyway, from today until the last Sunday of Epiphany can be considered the first long phase of the liturgical year. It begins with the solemnity of Advent, a month long period of preparation for the feast of Christmas. Since about the 4th century A.D., Advent has been observed in some form or other, usually as a period of fasting and an interior preparation for the coming celebration. My guess is that it grew out of a communal need to explain why the Parousia, so central to very early Christian belief, still had not occurred.
Even as a kid, I preferred Advent to the actual feast of Christmas. With purple vestments and a kind of hushed pause, Advent brought with it the mournful Jewish roots of a world waiting in darkness for redemption:
O come, O come Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear…
Some authorities say this is a 12th century hymn, but you have only to hear its echo of longing against the encroaching dark of Winter to know “Veni Emmanuel” goes back far earlier than that, back to the monasteries and their prayers in plain chant. This is an ancient one, and could as easily be sung by Jews as by Christians. I am no authority on these subjects but I intuit that its origins lie in the very beginnings of Eastern Christianity, before the Church divided.
Despite ongoing persecution of Christianity in the very places which gave it birth, and despite the attempt today by some groups in the US to eliminate any public mention of religion or religious holidays, Christianity and Christmas stubbornly persist. It is not yet against the law to say “Merry Christmas” out loud. But Lord knows the ACLU will spend millions in an attempt to stamp it out as though it were a smoldering cigarette. After all, what are they but a branch of the “Bah Humbug” Brigade with a most un-merry mission?
Isn’t it good to know that all the litigation in the world cannot prevail against the spirit inherent in the desire for Christmas? Please, don’t anyone tell them that Christmas is really a minor feast, theologically speaking. The Big One, the cornerstone of it all, is Easter, followed by Pentecost.
Shh – let them keep stomping up and down about Nativity Scenes and such. What they don’t know can’t hurt us.
Meanwhile, keep the children away from the candles.