ERE WE ARE once again, approaching the season of Advent. And for a great many people it is the season of Christmas. For shopkeepers, Christmas has been with us since the beginning of November, for the Post Office since the beginning of October and for those who send out catalogues, since the beginning of September. And, for those who want to sell Christmas cards, since the beginning of August! For those who think only in terms of commerce, the months afterwards will be taken up counting the money taken before Christmas and flogging off what remains in afterChristmas sales.
It would indeed be sad if Christians and in particular Catholics succumb totally to this commercialisation. But it would be sadder if we fell in totally with the modern idea that we celebrate before the feast. This has gone so far that the director of a local radio station has decreed that there should be no more carols played after midday on Christmas day.
Then again, there is the prevalence of Christmas carol services before the feast. And it might seem churlish to complain, and say it is unliturgical. Better to have the carols sung than not to have them sung at all. An attempt on my part to have a carol service after Christmas proved a failure. Maybe it is always difficult to organise a service that takes place in car-sodden London.
So let's look and see what this season of Advent should really be about. During it, the Church desires that "her faithful should practise fasting, works of penance, meditation and prayer in order to prepare themselves for celebrating worthily the coming of the Son of God in the flesh, to promote this spiritual advent within their own souls and to school themselves to look forward with hope and joy to His second advent when He shall come again to judge mankind." You can see that Advent is really meant to be like Lent, and whilst we cannot expect observance in our rather secular society, nevertheless we should bow our heads when we consider that fasting and prayer have always been a mark of the Church throughout the ages.
There is a marvellous beauty in the offices and rites of the Church during this season. The lessons, generally taken from the prophecies of Isaiah, remind us how the desire and expectation, not of Israel only, but of all nations, carried forward the thoughts of mankind, to a Redeemer one day to be revealed. They also strike the note of prepa ration, watchfulness, compunction and hope. In the Gospels we hear the tremendous consequences of the Last Judgement, that second Advent which those who despise the first will not escape. We read of the witness borne by John the Baptist, and the "mighty works" by which the Saviour's life gives us an assurance of his fidelity if we, in turn, show our fidelity to him.
AT VESPERS, the seven greater antiphons, or anthernS — beginning on December 17, the first of the seven greater Ferias preceding Christmas Eve — are a noteworthy feature of the liturgical year. They are called the "O's" of Advent on account of the manner in which they commence; they are all addressed to Christ; and they are double — that is, they are sung entire both before and after the Magnificat. There are, of course, extra liturgical activities for Advent. One is the making of the Advent wreath. It has its origin in Germany. Whether it was introduced into this country by Albert, the Prince Consort, who brought the Christmas tree is a bit vague, but its symbolism is important with its three purple candles which are lit Sunday by Sunday, with the white candle in the centre unlit until Midnight Mass. The pink candle is for the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, which parallels Laetare Sunday in Lent. These Sundays are a sort of half-time in the seasons of Advent and Lent. The lights on the wreath are symbolic, for Christ is our light, a light to enlighten the Gentiles.
There are also feasts to be celebrated: On December 4, we have the feast of St Barbara, patron saint of the Royal Artillery, whose body is preserved on the island of Burano in the Venetian Lagoon. On December 6 there is the feast of St Nicholas, which is much celebrated in northern Europe, when children receive their Christmas gifts on this day rather than on Christmas Eve. While talking of Christmas gifts, let us not forget that the Epiphany on January 6 is the great day for the giving of gifts to children, especially in Spain and Italy.
Then there is the "boy bishop" tradition, where a choirboy was elected on the Feast of St Nicholas, dressed as a bishop and remained "in office" until the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28. In one eastern diocese this custom was not thought necessary, as they already had a boy bishop and indeed a baby chancellor.
So the exhortation is that while we must inevitably go to half a dozen nativity plays, half a dozen carol services and half a dozen parties before the feast of Christmas, let us try to remember what the season of Advent is really about — and we should prepare by confession and prayer. Then we can enjoy the feast more worthily and sing the carol The Twelve days of Christmas which concludes the festivities, as Shakespeare did when he wrote Twelfth Night, to celebrate the feast of the Epiphany with the title having no relevance to the play, so he also added the subtitle Or What You Will.
Perhaps you can follow the example of the staff of The Catholic Herald, who are being very liturgically correct by having their Christmas party on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6. Now there's an example for you all!