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Sunday, November 30, 2003

The Penitence of Advent

It's official... Advent is here, Thanksgiving is past, and we're allowed now to listen to Christmas music in the open. Deck the Halls!

I've heard occasional criticisms of the way that American Christians celebrate the coming of Christmas. Many faithful Catholics I know are quick to remind me that this season is Advent, not Christmas... liturgically, a "purple" season. For those of you who are blinking at this information, purple signifies penitence. My thought is that it is precisely because Advent is a season set aside, it is appropriate to get into the "spirit" of the season. Advent is penitent, yes, but not in the same sense that Lent is. It is a penitence not of sorrow but of expectancy.

Being with child myself reminds me all the more of the difference. I, too, am in a condition of "denial" as I wait and prepare for my little one. The little denials of pregnancy include things like alcohol and too much sugar. I have to be dependent on others to lift heavy objects for me. But in these little sacrifices, I celebrate. Expectant mothers wait for their newborns with both sacrifice and celebration, at the same time. I can't help thinking that this is how we can view the Advent (coming) of Jesus, also. I don't want to forego celebrating the coming of Jesus any more than I intend to pass on baby showers or enjoying the fun of talking about baby names. Part of the season of expectancy is preparation; and spending too much time on dourness and too little on celebration tends to make it harder, not easier, to remember whom we are awaiting.

But what about secular Christmas songs? Yes, it's true, we do have a lot of traditions that have little to do directly with Christ's coming. We sing songs about sleigh bells and shopping and snowmen; How does this remind us that we're preparing for Christ's coming?

My mother made a good point on that subject. She reminded me of my childhood, when at family birthday parties we would sing Ring Around the Rosies, and play games like Pin the Tail on the Donkey. What did these, indeed, have to do with the child whose birth was being celebrated? Yet songs and games that became tradition, even if they had nothing overt to do with the birthday girl or boy, were part of the celebration. They were not so much a sign of that person, or even of birth, as they were simply elements of our idea of celebrating. They were things set apart, things we reserved for birthdays. That made them special and relevant.

Celebrating that Christ is coming is appropriate, and it is likewise appropriate to celebrate this coming using feast elements that we reserve for Him, and for this time of year. If they serve to remind us to make ready for Him, then they have served their purpose.

My husband and I already have a cradle set up for the baby, and we already have decorations set up for Christmas. They both prepare us and add to our sense of anticipation.

O come, o come, Emmanuel! We'll keep the lights on for You.