by David H. Powell
Carol and I enjoyed lessons and carol services this Advent in various diocesan settings. Lessons and carols were originally a purely Advent prayer service composed as preparation for Christmas, but over time, the format evolved into Christmas readings and carols. Usually such a service will begin with an Advent selection like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and prophetic readings from Isaiah but then gradually move to Infancy Narrative selections from Matthew and Luke. Some may end with the Advent refrain “Come, Lord Jesus” and others with a Christmas carol.
But as I am getting older, I find myself harkening back to seminary days, when for the first time I was initiated into the other dimension of Advent, namely, preparation for the Second Coming of Christ “at the end of time.” I especially remember the evenings from Dec. 16 to 23 when we gathered for evening prayer services called the “O Antiphons,” which revolved around one verse each night from “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” I had learned in early childhood about the four weeks of Advent remembering the roughly 400 years of immediate preparation for the first Coming of the Christ starting with the end of the Babylonian captivity. But in the series of “O Antiphons” sung in the seminary context of waiting, we were enabled to enter into the intensity of preparation in the early Church for the Second Coming of Christ epitomized in the classic refrain “Come, Lord Jesus.”
This refrain repeated over and over again like a mantra in those days also just happens to be the last phrase in the Bible as the conclusion of the Book of Revelation.
The key question is how we can integrate the “spirit of Advent” with the modern-day “spirit of Christmas.” This may be a strange question to ask now that Advent is coming to a close. However, for those like myself who feel the spirit of Advent is overwhelmed, even in church, by the onrush of Christmas, there is a practical solution: Let the spirit of Advent continue in the celebration of Christmas. We know that in church, the new season begins with Christmas Eve and continues through the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord in the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. This is because in the ancient Church, it was believed that the celebration of Christmas was an ongoing celebration of Christ the Light entering into the world of darkness. This is symbolized not just by the angels of light appearing to the shepherds but also by the manifestation (“epiphany”) to the non-Jewish magi and by the experience of the Father and the Spirit also manifesting themselves in dramatic symbolic fashion at the Baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan. This traditionally extended celebration of Christmas can become the occasion for an ongoing renewed emphasis on that Advent theme of preparation for the Second Coming.
During this wonderful lengthy Christmas season, let us be open in our liturgies to the revitalization of our hope that the entire human race and all of creation will be renewed “on that day” when we shall behold the complete Christmas manifestation of the glory of the Lord.[hr]
David Powell is a retired Catholic high school religion teacher and former director of several parish religious education programs.