Monday, December 3, 2012

About Advent

Advent, which comes from the Latin "ad venire"—to come to—or "adventus"—the coming, is a period of the year in which we mystically relive the thousands of dry years endured by the children of Israel, and by all mankind, in anticipation of the coming of the Messias. However, we have a consolation that they did not, that we know He has come and will come again. Advent is then a unique time of the year. It is a time of penance and fasting, but also a time of great joy and eagerness. It would be highly unusual to be singing Alleluia while fasting on bread and water, or perhaps it would just contest instinct. Many a saint have found joy and heard the voice of God only after fasting and penance.

His Rotundity, the Vice President!
First and foremost, Advent is a time of penance and preparation. A time of vigil, which derives from the Latin "vigilare," to keep watch. One keeps vigil by fasting, an act of purging temporal concerns and earthly frivolities from one's conversation with God. The normal fast is dietary, abstaining from meat or dairy products and decreasing the overall intake of food. This is particularly difficult for we chubby Americans, myself included. It seems throughout our history, we Americans have been noted for our weight. Vice President John Adams, himself pleasantly plump, proposed President Washington be given the title of "His Majesty" so that the prestige of the Presidency might increase. The Senate responded by proposing the Vice President be called "His Rotundity."

According to St. Gregory of Tours, writer of the "History of the Franks," St. Perpetuus decreed a fasting on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from the feast of St. Martin until Christmas Day in the year 480. Dom Prosper Gueranger wisely asks whether St. Perpetuus established or codified an existing custom. This was a period of 40, or 43, days, similar in length to the Lent before Easter. In the Byzantine tradition, the fast until Christmas is called the Lent of St. Philip and the Lent until Easter is called Great Lent!

Dom Prosper Gueranger, founder of Solemnes
and writer of the "Liturgical Year"
Dom Gueranger points out other parallels to Lent. A local synod in Macon, held in 582, decreed use of the penitential liturgy of Lent during the aforementioned weekdays of Advent. For those unaware, the Lenten liturgy is quite sparse in its nature, almost ascetic. Rabanus Maurus, again according to the founder of Solemnes, testified that there would be great celebrations throughout the Holy Roman Empire on the feast of St. Martin, as a period of penance was about to unfold.

Observation of the fast varied throughout Europe. Salsibury only expected monks to fast while in Rome the entire city fasted every day. So much for Christmas eve parties.

Fasting does two two very important things. First it brings us discomfort and second it draws our attention to God. This was the spiritual state of the world before the life of Jesus Christ. The world, like our world today, was mired in sin, but unlike our world, could not do anything about it. Human nature was fallen, sin was near-unavoidable, man did not have God's grace, and man could not do anything about it. Man can still not do anything about it. All grace and forgiveness of sin comes from God, which is what the Nativity of Christ began. It therefore seems of paramount importance that we who relish in the coming of Christ and in His Cross and in His Resurrection have reasonable appreciation for the spiritual aridity which Christ satiated.

A Russian friend of mine, who grew up in the Russian Orthodox Church, once asked me why Eastern priests are so round. I could not answer the question well, since they fast for about forty per cent of the year. Then again, they live so ascetically in preparation for the feasts of Christ and the saints, they must over-appreciate those days when they come!—if one can do such a thing.

Advent in the Roman rite is four Sundays. In the Ambrosian rite it is six! In the Byzantine tradition it remains forty days, but the Melkite Catholic Church only observes a fast from December 10th to the 24th.

Pope Benedict XVI presides at Vespers for the First
Sunday of Advent, 2008
Still, we cannot forget Advent is supposed to have some joy, as we know Jesus did in fact come to earth and He will come again. As one old English poem says "the dread Lord with stripes of red will come to judge the quick and the dead...." For the damned, this will not be the most bucolic of moments, as they are about to be cooked beyond well-done in the eternal deep fry. But those who followed the Lord's commandments will enjoy a satisfaction and consolation similar to those joys enumerated in Sunday Vespers yesterday.

For the first psalm, 109, the antiphon was: "In that day the mountains shall drop down sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with milk and honey. Alleluia."

For the second, 110, it was: "Sing, O daughter of Zion, and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem. Alleluia."

For the third, 111, it was: "Behold, the Lord shall come, and all His saints with Him; and it shall come to pass in that day that the light shall be great. Alleluia."

For the fourth, 112, it was: "Lo, every one that thirsteth come ye to the waters: seek ye the Lord while He may be found. Alleluia."

And for the last, 113, it was: "Behold, a great Prophet shall arise, and He shall build up a new Jerusalem. Alleluia."

But let us heed St. John of the Cross's warning, that we should live for the God of mercies, not the mercies of God. Advent is an opportunity to love God for Who He is and what He has done for us, rather than for feelings and sentiments He occasionally grants us. Alleluia, which follows every one of these antiphons, is odd for a penitential time, but quite reasonable given the impending coming of Christ, mystically.

We should ask ourselves a few certain questions during Advent:
  • Do I love God?
  • Do I need God?
  • How do I need God? What does He do for me?
  • How would I have reacted if I saw Christ's birth?
  • Why did I, or anyone, need Christ's birth?
  • How does Christ bring me joy?
  • Do I anticipate seeing Christ again some day?
  • When I see Him, and I shall, will I elate or cower?
I will leave you with the hymn for the season from vespers, with a translation from the Baronius Missal below.

Creator of the stars of night,
Thy people's everlasting light,
Jesu, Redeemer, save us all,
And hear Thy servants voice when they call.

Thou, lest the demon's ancient curse
Should doom to death a universe,
In love wast made, Thyself alone,
The means to save a world undone.

Towards the Cross Thou wentest forth,
That Thou might'st heal the crimes of earth:
Proceeding from a virgin shrine,
The spotless Victim all divine.

At whose dread Name, majestic now,
All knees must bend, all hearts must bow;
And all things celestial Thee shall own,
And things terrestrial, Lord alone.

O Thou, whose coming is with dread,
To judge and doom the quick and dead.
Thy heavenly grace on us bestow,
To shield us from our ghostly foe.

To God the Father, God the Son,
And God the Ghost, Three in One,
Laud, honor, might and glory be
From age to age eternally.

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