Q: Archbishop J, why wait to celebrate Christmas?
The secularisation of Christmas has been a creeping spiritual cancer. By October we are already in the height of the Christmas season with colourfully lit trees, snow and snowmen with sleds on top of houses. Radio stations play Christmas music from October and everyone is promoting Christmas cheer.
The problem is this is about commercial interest, getting people to buy and spend. It has little to do with Christ who was born in utter simplicity, humility and poverty. Commercialism in Christmas is real. It is the biggest season of gift-giving. When commerce subverts the meaning of Christmas; when the celebration of the greatest gift ever given and received becomes a great time for buying and selling, we have to resist. We have to wake up and recognise something is wrong here. Christmas is fast becoming more of a secular money-making season than a religious season. This needs to be challenged.
Waiting in Joyful Hope
I ask you to observe Advent as a season of waiting in joyful hope. Do not rush into Christmas too early. Wait and celebrate this Advent season with all its beauty and joy. I know some of you have waited in joyful hope to light your tree or put up your crèche. Thank you! It would be interesting to know the experience of this waiting and how it has helped you focus on Advent this year.
The parish of Nativity at Crystal Stream is waiting in joyful hope to light their tree this Sunday. Several people have told me there is an excitement and perplexity in the community. Why wait? Everyone has already lit their tree! Others have seen the point.
I pray that the weeks of waiting have allowed a deep pondering on the mystery that we celebrate and a desire for Christ whose coming we long for.
Waiting as a spiritual exercise
Waiting is a spiritual exercise. This is the essence of the Advent season. At Christmas Eve Mass we will read: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:2). For thousands of years humanity has waited for the Light to dawn.
Abraham waited 25 years after the promise of a son for Isaac to be born. David who was promised an heir, who would be the Messiah, waited over 900 years for the prophecy to be fulfilled. Israel waited over 300 years between the last prophet and John the Baptist foretelling the Christ. But we cannot wait a few weeks with Advent before rushing into Christmas!
Psychologists have now seen that emotional intelligence is the greatest prediction of success for young people. At its heart it is about delaying gratification—a pushing back on immediate pleasures.
Our tradition calls it sacrifice, choosing to give up something for a greater good. Contemporary society with its commercial culture has removed sacrifice and waiting from our normal or spiritual practices. We have raised a generation who do not know how to sacrifice or to wait.
Today we need Advent more than ever. Four weeks of waiting patiently for the coming of the Messiah is not much to ask. At the heart of the Advent cry is “Stay awake”. Or, “your hearts,” the Scripture continues, “will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life” (Lk 21:34).
Let us be honest, our hearts have become “weighed down”. Another translation is “coarsened”—to be made hard. If we are to grow in spiritual depth, we need to learn to wait. We need Advent.
The Advent wreath
The waiting of Advent is symbolised by the wreath. Three purple and one rose-coloured candle, and sometimes a white one in the centre, form the circle of the wreath. Each week a candle is lit; each has a meaning and significance, leading us to focus and celebrate a dimension of Advent hope.
This ritual associated with the wreath is very rich in meaning and a great way for families to walk through the weeks of Advent to Christmas.
In the popular tradition:
the 1st Sunday of Advent symbolises Hope, with the ‘Prophet’s Candle’, reminding us that Jesus is coming;
2nd Sunday symbolises Faith with the ‘Bethlehem Candle’, reminding us of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem;
3rd Sunday symbolises Joy with the ‘Shepherd’s Candle’, reminding us of the Joy the world experienced at the birth of Jesus;
4th Sunday of Advent symbolises Peace with the ‘Angel’s Candle’, reminding us of the message of the angels: “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men”; and
5th Candle, the white one, symbolises Christ whose Light illumines the darkness in the world and in our hearts.
On the third Sunday of Advent the rose-coloured candle is lit. This is the Sunday of great joy, Gaudete Sunday! Having waited, we are becoming excited because the Saviour is near. There is great rejoicing in the liturgy.
The readings speak to this great joy and the music and the homily are to take their cue from it. The other Sundays of Advent are purple, a little Lent, a time of repentance and soul-searching.
In Trinidad & Tobago, we have a party before the party: Advent is a season in preparation for the season. The coming of Christ as a baby is a game changer. It is the decisive event in all human history. God became man.
To heighten the sense of expectancy, there is an octave of Christmas—eight days of intense expectation. More recently in the Archdiocese, some have adopted the practice, during the octave, of an early morning Mass, at 5 or 5.30 a.m. Mass begins in darkness and the light slowly illumines the darkness. This is a very moving experience.
From December 17 to 24, the Church has very special readings that focus our attention on the coming Messiah. Our whole gaze now is transfixed on Christ who we await with great expectation and joy.
In the Evening Prayer of this octave, special antiphons accompany the Magnificat. These are also used as the Alleluia antiphons for Mass. Each speaks to a title of Christ, prophesied by Isaiah. The whole prayer of the Church speaks to the beauty and depth of the approaching solemnity and the one we await.