Today is the First Sunday of Advent. For most, this marks the beginning of the shopping season. The department stores, like the great cathedrals of Mammon they are, will be adorned for the high holy days of the financial year, sparkling with lights, bursting with goods, bustling with buyers. But I don’t intend this to be another lament over the secularization of Christmas. Such jeremiads and rebukes come with the season, and they have not , to date, had much influence on the conduct of affairs. It is all very well to remind our neighbours to keep Christ in Christmas, but it is hardly practical advice to one who has not kept Christ in any other season. It is not as though He can be found in the attic among the holiday ornaments, dusted off and put on display for a month or so.
Even those of us who realize that Advent is a penitential season, albeit not on a par with the gravity of Lent, continue to live much as usual – and though we might be loath to admit it, we are very much swept up in the commercial culture. We might set up our Advent candles and refrain from decorating too early, but we will also be making vigorous use of our credit cards, and our closets will be stuffed with presents and wrapping paper. And so the cycle of the season will wind on and wind down, until in February the advertisements will shift our attention to diamond jewelry and flowers and candy and romantic getaways in celebration of St. Valentine’s Day. And so the liturgical year and the commercial year will keep pace side by side, like two horses yoked to the coach in which we ride through life in a familiar cycle.
Will this Christmas find us much the same as last Christmas? Ideally, it should not, for we are told that in the spiritual life one either ascends or descends – there is no standing still. But there is a kind of negligible motion, a slight bobbing up and down that is much like standing still. And most of us, I suspect, remain in this more or less stationary position.
With the arrival of Advent, we have a golden opportunity to renew the spiritual combat, to fight for our genuine reformation. To do this, however, it is necessary that we stop thinking of life as a cycle, and realize it as a spiral: not as a thing that goes round and round, but as a thing that can go upward in ever ascending circles of light, and brighter light. Our great mystics lived in this spiral of the spirit, and some have left us moving accounts of their ascent. Among such literature, however, nothing appears to me as more practically helpful than the writings of the desert fathers, those early monks and hermits who saw everything under the aspect of eternity. For them, each day was a renewed adventure in the struggle of the spirit to reach its Creator and achieve what they called the Sabbath rest. Their writings are much like military manuals: descriptions of the lines of attack the enemy employs and the appropriate means of repulsing these attacks, along with methods of meditation that can eventually place one in an impregnable position.
May we all keep Our Lord with us, every minute of every day, during this Advent season as never before – always tomorrow more than today. Let us approach the silent and holy night of Christmas rightly absorbed by the image of a child in a manger and His Mother, never forgetting that the Child was born to exchange the wood of the manger for the wood of the Cross – as atonement for a fallen world. The Mother, kneeling at the manger and wrapping her child in swaddling clothes was destined to kneel at the foot of the Cross after her child had been cruelly stripped of His garments – the price of atonement for the Coredemptrix.
May we all, this Advent, heed ‘the voice of one crying in the desert: prepare the way for the Lord, make straight his paths’ (Isaiah 40:3).