Friday, December 9, 2011

Where did Advent (i.e. Nativity Lent) go?

Ah, the holidays. Everywhere you go, there are Santas and presents and lights and bell ringers and carolers and concerts and parties and food as far as the eye can see. And there's even some more church services, but those are just preludes to more parties. There are even Christmas programs, reenactments of the Nativity (historically inaccurate as they may be). As nice and as these things are, for the Christian, especially liturgical Christians, why is that we celebrate the feast during Advent? Yes, we should be joyful in the feast to come, but you can't just party; you first must prepare.

It would be unthinkable and even repugnant for Christians to have Easter (Pascha) parties or programs during the Great Lent season. Why? Because we are preparing to celebrate the Holy Day of Holy Days. The Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ cannot be fully comprehended and experienced unless there is preparation through increased prayer and fasting. If such is demanded of us at Pascha, why is it not demanded or even expected of us during Nativity Lent?

Of course, a great reason for this is because of the secularization of the season, but even if that were not considered, the churches are contributing to the damage. How many Advent hymns are sung as opposed to Christmas hymns? There is a difference between the two. In the Western Rite, the Advent Latin Hymn "Veni Redemptor Gentium" (Come, Saviour of the Nations) would be considered inappropriate for Nativity Day, just as "Von Himmel Hoch" would be considered inappropriate for the Advent Sundays leading up to Nativity. Even in the Western Rite, the Gloria in Excelsis is to be omitted because this is a fasting/penitential season and the Alleluia is replaced by the Tract. But that even seems seldom done. Even in the churches, Advent and preparation are removed in favor of Nativity and celebration.

Of course, even churches of the Eastern Rite are not exempt from these fads. In churches where there are many converts, it may be commonplace for the choir to sing Christmas (not Advent) songs after the Liturgy is completed. Again, the focus on preparation for the Lord coming in the flesh is substituted as if the liturgical reality has already happened!

The Church calendar has great and noble uses and I cannot believe was put haphazardly together or so that some old guys back thousands of years ago could get their kicks by telling posterity what to do. The Church calendar exists to put the feasts into perspective. That is why a time of fasting and preparation of various durations is prescribed prior to major feasts. Nativity has a 40 day fast; Pascha has a 40+ day fast; Dormition has a 2 week fast; Transfiguration, which occurs during Dormition has a fast; the Forefeast of Theophany is a fast; the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is itself a fast.

Of course, fast does not mean simply not eating certain foods, but can encompass any number of different acts of preparation with prayer being the most obvious. And fasts should not and should never be periods of looking disfigured and being depressed and sad. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann said of the Great Fast, it is a time of "bright sadness." The Christian vocation is one of joyous living, but nowhere near the point of Epicurean celebration.

It is hard to maintain a stricter rule of prayer and fasting when the world around us gives no heed to what Nativity is--The Lord Himself becoming incarnate, uniting His essence with our own so that everything we possess, hampered as it is by sin, may be healed so that we may grow in Him. But, it is even harder for us to do so when our churches make Advent into pre-Christmas.

This article gave me the inspiration for these thoughts. Enjoy.

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