09 December 2007

Devouring the Advent Fast

"Christmas has devoured Advent."

So declares Joseph Bottum, editor of FIRST THINGS in an article entitled "The End of Advent" appearing in the December 2007 issue. His argument is that the scurrying, the buying, the partying and various other commercializings and celebratings have not only threatened the true meaning of Chirstmass, but have also destroyed the time of preparation.

Advent prepares for Christmass. And, as Bottom rightly notes, it prepares as all true spiritual preparations prepare: by offering a discipline so that the celebration may its rightful place and thereby be truly celebratory. "What Advent is, really, is a discipline: a way of forming anticipation and channeling it toward its goal."

The goal, of course, is the celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord. And that celebration is not merely another annual marker. That celebration is a spiritual participation in one facet of our salvation.

One might think that spiritual participations suggest spiritual celebrations which, in turn, necessitate nothing more than spiritual preparations. In other words, keep the spirit of Christmass mentally, internally, in the private of your prayer closet; but that doesn't have to constrict joining in the modern pre-Christmass activities (which often anticipate Christmass by having Christmass, or portions of Christmass, early). But that's a platonic "eat your cake and have it too" attitude.

Bottum is quite correct in his analysis; especially when he suggests that Christmass' "setting in the church year" requires Advent's season of self-discipline.

The Jesse trees and the Advent calendars, St. Martin’s Fast and St. Nicholas’ Feast, Gaudete Sunday, the childless crèches, the candle wreaths, the vigil of Christmas Eve: They give a shape to the anticipation of the season. They discipline the ideas and emotions that otherwise would shake themselves to pieces, like a flywheel wobbling wilder and wilder till it finally snaps off its axle. ... Through all the preparatory readings, through all the genealogical Jesse trees, the somber candles on the wreaths, the vigils, and the hymns, Advent keeps Christmas on Christmas Day: a fulfillment, a perfection, of what had gone before.

Let me suggest, however, two other key practices: one slightly mentioned and one unmentioned. The unmentioned is discipline and restraint of setting up and decorating the Christmass tree on Christmass Eve. Let the house be bare during the preparatory season, and then festive with decorations throughout the Twelve Days of Christmass.

And the slightly mentioned practice is the discipline of regular prayer, fasting and abstention. In other words, keeping a true spiritual and physical Advent fast (or the older "St Martin's Fast"). Yet this latter discipline, more than any others, is communal; that is, it may be done individually but is greatly aided when the community of faith intentionally determines together "for a season" to consume less, both in quality as well as in quantity.

But such an Advent fast is hardly to be found. And, in fact, it has been replaced by its opposite--a devouring, gorging, gluttonous appetite. Yet is it fair, Mr Bottum, to blame this on Christ Mass?

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