This was my first attempt at putting something on-line. The deliver is a little flat, but the content is there. I will post my new material soon.
This was my first attempt at putting something on-line. The deliver is a little flat, but the content is there. I will post my new material soon.
First I want to make some comments about our history and our liturgy as Catholics. In order for us to be proud of our traditions, we need to first become more aware of what they are.
The liturgy committee wanted Fr. Frank and I to mention from the pulpit the meaning of the Advent wreath. It is one of those practices that goes back so far into the mists of time that it is difficult to trace the history. We know in the very least that peoples in Northern Scandinavia (what we would call “Viking” or “Norse” peoples) have used lights within wreaths for over a millenium on their windowsills to symbolize light and life. So the deeper roots of the tradition go way back. But as far as using the Advent wreath in some kind of official liturgical practice, it actually is one of those rare customs that has its roots in a Protestant tradition — particularly the German Lutherans of the 16th century, and the practice spread quickly throughout Catholic and other Protestant faiths. The practice didn’t really spread to the United States of America until the First World War.
The wreath is made of greenery because it symbolizes life. We also should remember that our salvation was accomplished by our Savior being hung on a tree. Did you know that a Christmas tree is supposed to represent a cross? We are decorating it because it was on a tree that our salvation finally came to us?
The wreath is round to symbolize eternity, and the four candles, of course, represent the four respective weeks that we spend preparing for the birth of Christ. Three of them are violet in order to represent the penitential nature of Advent, but also violet is considered a royal color representing the fact that the King will soon be here. One of the candles is rose (or pink) and is sometimes called the “Shepherds candle,” which represents the joy of the fact that Jesus will soon be with us.
Today is supposed to be Gaudete Sunday when rose colored vestments are used instead of purple to represent joy. It is really a gesture that is almost completely impossible to understand in our modern church for the following reasons. We need to remember that for most of the history of the Western Church, Advent was a season more like Lent. It was seen as penitential. During Advent, the church fasted and remained vigilant, looking toward the second coming of Christ. For that reason, it was once a welcome sight to see the church decorated in happier pink and rose rather than the more somber purples. Generally speaking, no Christmas parties were allowed until at least Gaudete Sunday. The Church was supposed to be training itself like an Olympic athlete, watching for the day of Christ. It was a sign that Christmas was almost here, and marked a turning point in the church’s attitude from one of penance to one of joy. But now that modern retail stores have tried to get us rejoicing and putting up happy lights since before Thanksgiving (or before), the significance of switching from purple to rose is simply lost on us. It used to be that the church controlled people’s attitudes regarding these outside traditions — when lights would go on trees, when people would shop, when we would have parties, how we would decorate, what we would eat. But now the world controls many of these things for us instead of the church. It is the media and the economy that control what songs we hear, what food is put out, what decorations we see. If you go to Times Square in New York City there is a massive, $25,000 billboard put up by the American Atheist Organization that says, “Keep the Merry and Dump the Myth.” A picture of Santa Claus is next to the word “Merry” and a picture of Jesus is next to the word, “Myth,” overtly insulting every Christian in the world. People, this isn’t a little sign in a small town. It’s a massive billboard in one of the most populous squares on our planet. It is becoming more and more fashionable to publicly insult Christianity.
The reason why I point this out is to indicate to you that we should understand that it will become harder and harder to follow our true Christian traditions rather than easier and easier. An effort must be made. We must remain vigilant.
We are like children whose parents have split up. One parent tries to get us to follow the revered Christian traditions, and the other parent could care less as long as he or she can have some fun and have money in his or her pocket. It’s no wonder that such a child is confused. I think there is a reason for the fact that many people are tired and depressed by Christmas time. It is because our world has turned Christmas into something it was not meant to be. We are supposed to be fasting up until at LEAST this Sunday. The mood in our stores should be subdued and somber, if it were a Christian world. And when you went into stores tomorrow, they should begin to light up with Christian joy. The happy music should begin today. Just ten more days until Christmas, after all! But instead we have had merriment and joy virtually shoved down our throats for the past several weeks, and it’s no wonder that our spirits are a bit tired of it. We have heard the sayings, “Distance makes the heart grow fonder,” and “Hunger makes the stew taste better.” Well, in the same way, a little fasting makes the season happier. But I’m afraid that we have forgotten how to fast. Perhaps this is something that you can consider, whether or not you are single or have a family. How well are you keeping guard of following these traditions of seasons and fasting in the church? Do you say special prayers over your advent wreath or your Christmas tree, or have rules about what kind of decorations you should have or when they should go up? Do you pray before meals? Do you realize that for 8 days before Christmas, all Christians should be praying special prayers called the “O Antiphons”? Because if you don’t realize these things, then maybe you should try to study them a bit more and make them more a part of your life and the life of your family. My friends, these aren’t just details. They are customs that make a statement about who we are as a spiritual people, and we shouldn’t let a world obsessed with money and pleasure dictate to us what the mood of the season should be.
But with that being said, I want to make a more direct spiritual point about the readings. I mention some of these dangers to our culture for a reason. Last week most of y’all know that I gave a homily on the meaning of vigilance — you can read it on my blog (you can find the address for it in the bulletin). We must be constantly aware that if we are standing guard over something, it’s because there is something precious to stand guard OVER and also because there is an enemy who threatens us. What is precious is our FAITH. The enemy is Satan. The enemy is the world that would have us believe that faith is a myth.
We must take refuge in our faith. The reading from the Letter to the Philipians is one of my favorites in all of Scripture:
Rejoice in the Lord always.
I shall say it again: rejoice!
Your kindness should be known to all.
The Lord is near.
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Scripture is instructing us what to do. John the Baptist instructed us what to do in today’s Gospel reading. Show kindness to others. Constantly bring your petitions before God. Constantly make an effort to be thankful for what you have. And if we do this, our hearts will become guarded by a certain peace, and we will feel God’s Presence. It really works.
(I ended this homily with a personal testimony that is not printed here.)
Our banner reads, “Advent is about vigilance.” But what does that truly mean? What does vigilance mean, and is the church asking us to be vigilant about a certain thing right now? First of all, I will explain the meaning of vigilance itself. Second, I will explain the specific meaning of “vigilance” regarding the season of Advent. Third I will inform you of some things that are going on in the church right now that demand our vigilance. So like St. Thomas Aquinas my master, I will proceed from the general to the specific.
First, what does vigilance mean? Our word “vigilance” comes from the original Latin vigilia, meaning “wakefulness” or “watchfulness.” If we see the word used in ancient Latin, it usually described a soldier standing at his post or a parent keeping watch over his or her child. When we hear this word, it should call to mind images of the lonely soldier standing at his post, a mother anxiously watching every breath of a sick child in a crib, or a lover standing on a pier waiting for her beloved to come back to her from across the sea. If you’ve ever seen the movie A Few Good Men, Galloway is a lawyer who is taking part in a very sensitive legal case involving the United States Marine Corps. At one point, Lt. Weinberg asks Galloway, “Why do you like the Marines so much.” She simply replies, “Because they stand on a wall and say ‘Nothing’s going to hurt you tonight. Not on my watch.” (I love that quote.) A very common quote that you will come across is that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
The question for us this Advent is whether we feel deeply enough about our faith to be vigilant about it. Is our faith so sacred to us that it makes us feel like a watchful soldier, a concerned parent or a waiting lover?
So from the most ancient of times, vigilia or vigilance is a sacred word. The idea of vigilance implies several things: 1) It implies that there is something priceless enough to keep watch over, 2) It implies that the one keeping watch over it must perform some constant duty to keep watch over that thing, 3) vigilance implies that there is an enemy that you have to be vigilant against.
What are we keeping watch over this Advent? What should we be vigilant about? First, let me point out a newsflash that is found in most of the prayers of Advent: not only has Jesus come as a baby once, he is also coming again as very much of an adult who will one day stand face to face with us with very definite expectations that we have kept our faith in him alive. Advent and Christmas are not just supposed to be about a cute baby in a manger, as inspiring and beautiful of an image as that is. We are supposed to be reminded that one day, like lightning flashing from one end of the sky to another, Jesus will come again on the clouds to judge the nations – and our hearts. So have we kept watch over our hearts like a soldier, or an anxious lover? Have we kept ourselves from being invaded by the enemy of sin? Have we gone to mass and confession consistently? Have we said to private prayer and the rosary, or tried to fast, sit in adoration or tried to offer up acts of love to our Savior? Have we read and prayed with the Bible? Have we aided our brothers and sisters in their sufferings? Have we stood up for our faith and witnessed that we were Christians in the midst of an atheistic, perverse generation, even if it meant that we would be ridiculed or persecuted? Think about it. Is our behavior truly different than the behavior of our neighbor who doesn’t really profess Christ as savior? Because if our behavior isn’t different, then we might be FAILING in this call to vigilance.
Think about John the Baptist. From his earliest days of infancy, his parents must have told him about his vocation to be the prophet of the Messiah. His entire life must have revolved around pondering Scripture and what this might mean for him. His was the voice that was to be the one crying out in the wilderness to make straight the way of the Lord. Imagine what your life might be like if you knew before you could even talk that your mission on earth is supposed to be to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah. Think about how awesome that must have been! Think about how great of a responsibility must have weighed on the shoulders of John the Baptist. But shouldn’t it be true that all of us should conduct our lives as if we were preparing the world for the coming of the Messiah with our prayer and our behavior? Shouldn’t that be our ideal? THAT is what it means to be watchful. THAT is what it means to be vigilant.
What if it were true that by our behavior we might save or lose another soul? What if it were true that our vigilance could mean eternal salvation for someone sitting next to us? Because our faith would have us believe that this is precisely true.
With this in mind, I want you to be aware of the major movements that are going on in the Catholic Church right now. If we are supposed to be vigilant, then it doesn’t seem fair that we just guess about what that means. Our Church is constantly trying to read the signs of the times and give us hints about how we should be directing our hearts.
If you were not aware, Pope Benedict declared a Year of Faith for the Catholic Church. This began on October 11 and it will conclude next year on November 24. Exactly why did our Pope think it was necessary to declare a year of faith? Let us allow him to tell us the answer in his own words. In the document that the Pope himself wrote that inuguarated this event, he wrote, “Whereas in the past it was possible to recognize a unitary cultural matrix, broadly accepted in its appeal to the content of the faith and the values inspired by it, today this no longer seems to be the case in large swathes of society, because of a profound crisis of faith that has affected many people.” The Pope has declared a year of faith because he realizes that we find ourselves in the middle of a culture that is losing its faith.
So what do we do?
The Pope writes, “We must rediscover a taste for feeding ourselves on the word of God, faithfully handed down by the Church, and on the bread of life, offered as sustenance for his disciples.” The Pope has called us again to try to live our creed. We have been called to ponder and pray with Scripture, the Documents of Vatican II, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. We are to remind ourselves that doing charitable acts of social justice is a good thing, but the real work of God is to believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father and to testify to him by our words and deeds. The image that the Holy Father gives for our age is a beautiful but radical one. He writes: “The Church as a whole and all her Pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance.” This is a fairly radical image. We are to view this life as pilgrimage through a desert, taking only what is needed, and holding fast to the traditions given to us by Holy Scripture and the tradition of the Church. Exactly what the Pope forsees is a mystery. But the discerning Catholic needs to recognize that the Holy Father is calling us back to a radical state of vigilance concerning our faith. If we have sleepy or complacent souls, our church is begging us to wake up and prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ.
Confession and Eucharist must become absolute priorities. Private prayer, fasting, and study must come very closely behind. And we should attempt to demonstrate with our behavior that a real change is happening in our hearts so that people will again see how powerful a true Christian witness can be.
Blessed Pope John Paul II once said, “The whole of our life must be an Advent—a vigilant waiting for the final coming of Christ. What we heard Jesus say last Sunday during the Gospel must always ring out in our minds and hearts. Jesus said, “Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man (Lk 21:36).” A soldier keeps his weapons always ready. An expected lover never stops thinking about the beloved. A mother never takes her eyes off that sick child. Is that how we treat our faith? Because that is how Jesus asked us to treat our faith. So let us strive that it might be so.