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.)