Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

The Bishop Writes

"Advent: beginning anew"

by Bishop William S. Skylstad

(From the Dec. 6, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

The repetitive nature of the Church’s liturgical year has always been a rich experience. Certain parts of the year are more prayerfully intense than others: Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Advent. The Feast of Christmas, although not established in the very early centuries of the Church, has become a very popular feast day in both the religious and secular world. We take note that popular terms like Christmas and Santa Claus have their origin in Christ’s Mass and St. Nicholas.

In a secular world, the time before Christmas has been heavily commercialized. Certainly a positive aspect of this time is a sensitivity to the needs of our loved ones as we purchase gifts that are practical and usable. The time before Christmas must also be a time when we remember the needs of the poor and the vulnerable.

This is a time of great opportunity for generous almsgiving. The Catholic Charities Christmas Collection is a visible sign of our sense of responsibility and good stewardship. (Editor’s note: See page 3 of this edition of the Inland Register.) Both of these qualities should lead us to moderate our gift buying and a generous response to the poor and needy. Most of us have far more than we ever need.

Christmas music these days fills the air. Decorations and lights are everywhere, adorning buildings both private and public. Creative displays by homeowners share their joy in the season with passersby. Yet when Christmas Day itself comes to a close, immediately the radio stations cease playing Christmas music. The displays come down. Life goes back to normal.

The Church’s approach is different.

The Church’s new liturgical year begins with the first of the four Sundays of Advent in preparation for the Solemnity of the Birth of Jesus. For us, the Advent season is a time of preparation and hopeful expectation. When the day of Christmas arrives, there is great celebration of gratitude and joy.

In the days following Dec. 25, our liturgy moves us into the Christmas season. Our hymns for Christmas continue to be sung; the nativity crèches remain in place. The liturgical ambience and celebrations that follow soon after, including the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, and Epiphany, help us let the spirit of the season “soak in,” as it were, and become a part of our way of thinking and living. As one spiritual writer commented, “Christmas is a time of reality oftentimes in a year of illusion.“ There is indeed something about this season that makes us especially sensitive to others, those who are in need and those who are our loved ones.

The Scripture readings for the celebrations of Eucharist during this time are rich in message and symbolism. John the Baptist plays a prominent role in the Gospel readings for the Sundays of Advent. John preaches a clear directive about our relationship with Jesus: “He must increase; I must decrease.” It is a message we need to hear, and hear often, as we try to make those words a reality in our hearts, in our daily lives. “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” said John to those who would listen – 2,000 years ago, and today, and for all ages. With a sense of genuine urgency, the Baptist encourages us to address the full reality of our spiritual journey. There is a mixture of holiness and sinfulness in all of us. We must strive to make one increase and the other decrease; that is our life-long task and challenge!

The Advent readings also include the visionary imagery of the prophet Isaiah. “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” “The wolf shall be the guest of the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” “The desert and parched land will exult.” “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” As Isaiah speaks to us, we cannot help but be uplifted with hopeful expectation!

There are several aspects of the Advent season that could assist us in participating fruitfully in this special time of preparation.

One of the more recent popular prayer services in the Church during this Advent season is that surrounding the Advent wreath. Most of our parishes have beautiful wreaths and candles, accompanied by the prayer appropriate to the week. These celebrations can also take place in the home. After all, this is a season of lights. The candles of the Advent wreath remind us of our need always and everywhere to walk in the light of the Lord. Christ is our Light.

Second, Jesus comes to change our lives. Jesus not only came; he comes! As we become more sensitive to this saving presence, our lives are transformed. With the Savior’s help, we can change.

Third, in all of our lives, there is a deep sense of waiting. Some call it the restless spirit. As followers of Jesus who celebrate his coming, we should know how that restlessness is satisfied.

Perhaps we feel that in some way, we just don’t see the mystery that is Advent, the spiritual journey that leads us to Christmas. Remember that Joseph searched for understanding, too, when he found Mary unexpectedly pregnant. But he would come to know and understand. So will we if we listen to God’s Word and strive to be aware of how Jesus comes into our lives.

A blessed and joyful Advent to all!

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