- THOMAS REESE
Are you ready to ring in the New Year?
You might think I’m getting ahead, but for Christians the new liturgical year begins not on January 1 but on the first Sunday of Advent, which this year falls on November 27. This is one of those rare occasions when Christians are actually one step ahead of everyone else.
PHOTO: KaLisa Veer / Unsplash / Creative Commons
Advent is how the Church prepares for both Christ’s birthday and Christ’s Second Coming, which He promised when He left the company of His disciples after His resurrection and His disciples, the Church, are still waiting.
Our first testimonies of Advent come from Gaul (present-day France) and Spain. In 380, when 12 Spanish bishops gathered at the Synod of Zaragoza, they reminded Christians of their obligation to attend church every day from December 17 to January 6, according to Lizette Larson-Miller in The new dictionary of sacramental worship, on which this article is heavily dependent.
“Advent is how the church prepares for both Christ’s birthday and Christ’s second coming, which he promised when he left the company of his disciples after his resurrection and his disciples, the church, are still waiting. “
In Gaul, Christians fasted three days a week from November 11 to Christmas. Advent in Gaul took on many of the penitential characteristics of Lent, such as the abandonment of Gloria, the hymn of praise to God, of the mass. These practices influenced the universal church after being adopted by Rome.
In Rome, Advent took place at the same time as the dazzling Saturnalia celebrations of the local citizens, which the clergy always denounced. Fasting was seen as a distinction between Christians and pagan bacchanalia.
Perhaps fasting in Advent can be the Christian response to the consumerism of the season. It’s our way of being counter-cultural.
But Christians were not only preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ: they were also anticipating his coming at the end of time. The song Dies Irae (Day of wrath) was originally composed for the beginning of Advent.
Like I have written elsewhere, global warming makes us realize that we can bring about the End Times by our own efforts. Advent is a time to remind us through the fast that our extravagant energy consumption must be curtailed if we are to survive and thrive as a species. Do something green during Advent.
Of course, Advent is celebrated when it is, because we celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25.
Since we do not know the day of Jesus’ birth, there are two theories explaining the choice of December 25 as the day to celebrate his birth. There may be some truth to both theories.
The first theory is that it was chosen as a calculated strategy by Christian leaders to replace or counter the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the pagan festival celebrating the rebirth of the sun at the time of the winter solstice.
Christians were not above the cooptation of pagan practices and customs. Often Christian churches were ancient Greek or Roman temples or were built where the temples stood before they were destroyed by Christians. Likewise, pagan Christians began to use statues to represent Christ and the saints, which their Jewish ancestors would never have done.
The second theory is complicated. It begins with the calculation of the early Christians that Jesus died on March 25.
The early Christians, like their Jewish contemporaries, believed that the birth and death of great men were linked. For example, they believed that the dates of birth and death of the patriarchs coincided.
For Jesus, it was his conception and his death that were aligned. This put her birth nine months later on December 25. This put her conception and death near the spring equinox and her birth on the winter solstice.
Some scholars believe this dating originated in North Africa, but when it arrived in Rome, its celebration was colored by the pagan sun festival.
The celebration of the birth of Jesus, if it started well with the co-option of a pagan feast, has come full circle: Advent and Christmas have been co-opted by pagan capitalism. Advent is now for shopping, not for preparing the way for the Lord.
It seems doubtful that Christians will be able to free Christmas from its commercial slag. At best, we could save Christmas by moving the gifts to Epiphany (January 6), when we currently remember the Magi and their gifts to Jesus. Traders might like this, as it would give them another week for the shopping season.
Epiphany means “manifestation”, and the feast originally recalled the baptism of Jesus and the announcement of his mission by the Father. In the East, Epiphany was the oldest and most important holiday. Remember, Mark’s gospel, the first of four New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus, begins with his baptism. The story of Joseph and Mary and the account of Jesus’ birth were not written until later.
Eventually, the East adopted Christmas from the West and the West adopted Epiphany from the East, where it was added to Christmas history as a holiday celebrating the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem.
Today in the United States, Epiphany is celebrated on the first Sunday in January, and the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated the following Sunday (or the Monday if the 6th is a Sunday) after Epiphany.
The way Christians have celebrated Christmas over time has changed, and it must continue to change if we are to free Christmas from its capitalist shackles. But how this should evolve is to be guessed.
The Conservatives believe the biggest threat to Christmas is to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”.