Waiting for the Real Christmas

I don’t know about you, but I’m already tired of ‘Christmas’. Of course, I am not referring to the real Christmas—the birth of Jesus—but what goes by the name of Christmas in the stores and on television and the internet. I’ve had my fill of Rudolf and Frosty, and even of Santa Claus coming to town. But how should we as Christians react to the gross commercialization of the feast? I have hit upon a simple solution in that I have come to realize that it’s not Christmas at all that is being observed but rather something else, whose character is captured in the greetings more and more common today such as “happy holidays” or “the best of the season.” And what is this “something else”? What is really being celebrated is a winter festival, in which the gloom of short days and long nights is dispelled with parties, family reunions and an exchange of gifts. In other words, we’re back to pagan times when the gradual shortening of the days in late autumn seemed almost to threaten a complete disappearance of daylight, leaving the world in a state of permanent darkness. That is why the return of the sun at the end of December was greeted with rapture and relief. The ancient Romans celebrated the event with a feast of “the unconquered sun,” sol invictus. Well, we live in this society, and so inevitably, it seems, we too shall resort to those extreme methods for dispelling the sombre days of winter that we find all about us in a frenzy of shopping, partying and over-eating.

But we are also Christians, and we have something to add to these secular observances. In our Sunday worship we are summoned to take note of another factor in the shadowy winter season, namely, the experience of those who, feeling anguish during the darkness of the night, look forward with longing towards dawn.

I wake and feel the fell [grief] of dark, not day.

What hours, O what black hours we have spent

This night![1]

So, . . . instead of dispelling gloom with the artificial joy touted by advertising and the rest of it, we are invited to enter into a time of serious reflection on our need for light that its absence must engender. What I am describing is no easy matter, for it is only rarely that city folk like us encounter real darkness. Our streets are illumined all night long, and even inside our houses there seems always to be something giving off light. Am I wrong to suspect that we have an aversion to being “left in the dark,” as we say? I’ve heard people complain, as one example, that something has to be done to improve the lighting in this church, although it has been regarded as adequate for ninety years and must have seemed dazzling back in 1927, when the church was built.

In any case, these reflections are designed to remind you of the importance of our liturgical observance of Advent. What seems, by and large, to be well-nigh impossible—the psychology of delay, of waiting, (what can I say?), of the experience of pitch blackness—is made available at Sunday Mass, in the subdued purple vestments the priest wears, the solemn seasonal chants and the bare walls of the building itself: no fir trees here, no lights or wreaths, no crèche or carol, until the twenty-fifth! Saint Luke, in the canticle of Zechariah, describes it well: “. . . the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,”[2] As everyone here knows, light shining in the darkness is a theme repeatedly found in the New Testament. It’s a symbol of the manifestation of God to mankind as we find it in today’s lesson taken from the prophecy of Baruch: “For God will lead Israel with joy in the light of his glory.”[3] That why hills will be “made low” and “valleys raised,” and it will be easy for all flesh “to see the salvation of God.”[4] Saint Paul, too, makes use of these images when he prays that the love of the Christians of Philippi—and of Toronto—“may overflow . . . so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.”[5] The season of Advent, however, is insistent that the spiritual dawn that the Bible promises will come to those who not only want it, but who long for it, as a starving man desires food or a parched palate water. The larger-than-life personages from the Bible that dominate the liturgy of Advent all embody this sense of expectant waiting: the prophet Isaiah whose portrait of the long-expected Messiah is so vivid that Saint Jerome described him as an evangelist; Saint John the Baptist points exultantly to the bridegroom who is coming after him; Our Lady who is waiting for the fulfilment of the promise she had received from the Archangel Gabriel: “You will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” And each one of us here, at this moment, is also looking forward to God’s revealing himself, first in the graces that we receive in the sacraments and prayer and then, at the end of time, in the coming—the advent—of Christ in glory to judge the living and the dead.

[1] Gerard Manley Hopkins, I Wake and Feel the Fell of Night; “fell” here means “fierceness, ruthlessness, brutality.”

[2] Luke 1.78-79.

[3] Baruch 5.9.

[4] Luke 3.6.

[5] Phil 1.10-11

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