Advent Must Be Preserved

A blessed Advent, everybody!

I hardly dare ask, but … do you take part in the annual Advent Debate?

You certainly recognize the two sides of the debate. The one, usually "old timers," worry that we begin the celebration of Christmas way too early. This side remembers the days when the tree would never go up until Dec. 24 (or maybe a day or two before), when Christmas parties would rarely take place before the holiday itself, when Advent was more somber, prayerful and penitential, filled with fasting (even Dec. 24 itself, recall?), where the making of a good confession prior to the big feast was essential even for "lukewarm" Catholics, and the chance to do so was ample. The spirit of Advent, this side of the debate maintains, was easier to absorb, as anticipation, expectation and waiting were real. And so, they conclude, the feast itself was more joyful, so much so that we continued it for at least 12 festive days, as the celebration of the "holidays" went on at least until Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany, with trees and cribs never down before then, and carols still fresh until we sang all 90 verses of We Three Kings on Epiphany itself, the ancient "twelfth day" of Christmas. (Pope John Paul II even kept the crib scene up in St. Peter’s Square until Feb. 2, Candlemas Day, 40 days after Christmas.)

But now, side one mourns, we’re sick of carols by Christmas Day, since we’ve been hearing them since before Thanksgiving. Advent—except for Sunday Mass—is a laugh, since we’re already celebrating the feast at home, in the office and at school. Decorations have been in the stores since Halloween, and the "Christmas parties" are already in full swing. Dec. 25 itself becomes anti-climatic. Last year, on a quiet stroll Christmas night to smoke a good cigar someone had given me (I had not had one all Advent), I passed three homes with the tree already out at the trash can. No wonder a woman complained to me a couple of years ago on the way out of Mass on the Sunday after New Year, the feast of the Epiphany, "Enough of the O Come All Ye Faithful! We’re tired of it!" Sure she was! She’d had it on the car radio since mid-November.

Side two of the Advent Debate claims to be more realistic. We should accommodate, they reason. Let’s rejoice at least that all of society is celebrating such noble things as family, friends, sharing, giving, helping, forgiving and generosity. Let’s be happy that even the most dogged secularist is a bit open to some thought of God and His Son this time of the year. Maybe we should be delighted that people are so eager to be in the "Christmas spirit" that they literally "can’t wait." And let’s just admit that our Advent should be more about such things as hope, giving and reconciliation than about more somber things such as penance and waiting. The days of no "Silent Night" and no reading St. Luke’s Gospel of the birth of the Savior before Midnight Mass are long gone (as is Midnight Mass itself for most!), and we might as well admit it.

Well, where do you stand? Some form of the Advent Debate usually goes on at every liturgy committee meeting, parish council or family kitchen table, with the "old timers" recalling the days when the celebration of Christmas began the evening of Dec. 24—not the day after Thanksgiving—and lasted until the Epiphany, and the other side telling us to "give-it-up" and admit the reality that Christmas starts at Thanksgiving and ends on Christmas Day.

All I know is that we have to preserve Advent. Holy Mother Church is so wise to remind us that a careful, simple, patient preparation is necessary to enhance the joy and deepen the peace of Christmas. Our culture hates to wait, and prefers immediate gratification, so we feast now—and then end up bored, tired, and empty Christmas night. Believers say, take it easy, savor the moment, cherish the season, prepare mind and heart. Usually, women and men of faith realize, we regret it when we rush into things. Pleasure delayed is pleasure enjoyed. Anticipation is half the fun.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m on no Advent Jihad. With side two, I’m glad that, at least from mid-November until Christmas night, society seems open to the message, eager to share, sensitive to the needy, ready to reconcile, drawn to babies, home, and family and vaguely familiar with concepts such as Savior, Messiah, Emmanuel, Jesus, Mary and Joseph. As our catechists say, this is a "teachable moment," and we hardly need to be hand-wringing crabs about it. But, at least inside, we insist on the waiting, the preparation, the anticipation. We grow fond of Isaiah, of Elizabeth and Zachariah, of John the Baptist, and of Mary and Joseph. We’re spiritually like kids who can’t get to sleep Christmas Eve so eager are we for the joy of Christmas. But the charm comes because it can’t be rushed. To rip open the gift now will just not do.

I know the tree might already be up, the lights on, the corks popped, the parties started. That’s just the culture we live in. Joy is a virtue appropriate anytime, anywhere. But, let’s not lose Advent, okay?