The Christian season of preparation for the Nativity of Christ at Christmas marks the beginning of the liturgical year in Western Christianity. The name was adopted from Latin adventus “coming; arrival.”This year, Advent starts this Sunday, November 27.
Happy Advent! Unfortunately, many people skip over this great season of prayer and preparation in a rush to maximize their enjoyment of the excitement of holiday parties, Christmas carols, Santa Claus, sweets and the busy-ness of shopping.
Advent is the great gift that the Church gives us as we have the opportunity to begin anew with a new liturgical year. We begin this new year with the challenge of preparing for the great mystery of God entering into humanity. The dawning of a new liturgical year with Advent preempts the arrival of a new calendar year and is an opportunity to reflect back on the past year of our life and what went not so well, and to consider what needs to change in our lives — then taking steps to bring about these changes. By doing so, we are creating room in our lives to allow the incarnation to take place in our own lives.
How should we approach Advent?
Once we recognize that this season is a call to prepare our hearts for God’s entrance into the world, we can take seriously the call to accept the invitation to welcome God into our lives. In accepting this invitation to allow God into our lives, we can renew our relationship with Christ with a spirit of quiet longing. To allow for a spirit of quiet longing to be a reality in our lives, we are called to discipline ourselves to not rush into the hectic milieu of holiday parties, Santa Claus, Christmas lights and Christmas music. We are called to rather delay that satisfaction and allow for a build up of the true desire for Christmas. Even if our intentions are mixed, choosing to delay the celebration of Christmas until the 24th creates a place for quiet in our lives. In this quiet, we have a space to consider the purpose of Christmas and its reminder of the threefold coming of Christ:
The historic coming of the Child Jesus long ago in Bethlehem.
The future coming of Christ at the end of time.
The presence of Christ in our world now, and His desire to truly make a dwelling in our hearts.
How can we enter more fully into Advent this year?
I invite you to consider what it means for Christ to come at Christmas, at the end of time, and in the present moment. We can begin with the words of Matthew’s Gospel for the first Sunday of Advent, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come. While we cannot know the exact hour of Jesus’ return at the end of time, we can make the choice to start our preparations … now. Advent provides us with an opportunity to recall that, as Christians, our lives are to be directed to the following of Christ.
We began the month of November with the celebration of All Saints on November 1, followed by All Souls on November 2. The celebration of All Saints is a joy-filled experience in which we, as Catholics, jubilantly recall the accomplishments, legends, miracles, and holiness of those who went before us. The Church even agrees with this, assigning white as the liturgical color.
All Souls’ Day is based upon the tradition of recalling the memory of the deceased, and praying for their eternal rest. The act of remembering the dead and praying for them is not a distinctly Christian, or Catholic practice, as most cultures throughout human history have sought to honor their dead in some fashion.
What is distinctly Christian is how we honor the dead and how we pray for them. Since the era of the early Church, people have regularly prayed for their deceased loved ones, and have had the Eucharist celebrated for them. In the first centuries of Christianity, these Masses took place on or near the tombs of their loved ones. Inscriptions found on tombs in the Roman catacombs from the second century provide evidence for this tradition. These inscriptions include prayers for the dead, as well as notes celebrating anniversaries of the death of those buried in the tombs. These prayers for the dead were intended to request the speedy passage of loved ones through their time of being purified of their sins and earthly attachments, and on to the Heavenly Kingdom of God.
The tradition of praying for the dead existed in the Jewish tradition as well. In the Book of Maccabees, we see that tradition of offering sacrifices for the deceased in the story of Judas Maccabee taking up a collection for those who died on the battlefield, so that their souls would be spared of punishment for their wrongdoings.
The Jewish practice of having animal sacrifices offered for the dead transitioned into having the sacrifice of the Mass offered for the dead in Christianity. At Mass, both the prayers of the presider, and of those attending the Mass, along with the graces obtained through the Mass could be offered for the needs of another, such as the deceased. Prayers for the needs of the deceased and others also occur in the Eucharistic prayers. The next time you are at Mass, listen to what the priest is saying. You will hear him pray for the Church as a whole, the leaders in the Church and all those who have died.
The call to pray for the dead at Mass can be found in the writings of the Church Fathers. St. Augustine, who lived during the 5th century, recorded in his Confessions, the dying wish of his mother, St. Monica, that he would pray for her at the altar during Mass. The 7th century pope, St. Gregory, who is credited with the tradition of offering a series of Masses for the deceased, offered the exhortation, “Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.”
In the early Church, when Mass was celebrated, those requesting the Mass offered a “sacrifice” of the supplies necessary for Mass — bread, wine, linens, candles, and so on. They also traditionally offered extra foods or goods to support the priest, just as was done at the Jewish Temple. At that time, the collection taken up at Mass was used to support the poor and sick of the Christian community, rather than for the operation of the institution. Therefore, those serving the Church depended on the generosity of others. One way this was done was by giving gifts in exchange for the celebration of Mass on behalf of a family, or group. This tradition was also born of, “the old Roman notion of gift-giving which does not entail reciprocity. Gifts freely given are freely received without the obligation of recompense.” Priests were called in their generosity to pray and offer Mass for the wishes of their congregants. Likewise, donors provided support not out of obligation, but rather out of gratitude.
This tradition of asking for Masses to be offered for various needs continues on to today; the vast majority of Masses celebrated throughout the world are offered for an intention of someone. These intentions could be for one’s relatives or friends, be they living or dead, or as a gesture of gratitude towards God, or to seek God’s guidance for themselves, or someone else. Today people no longer supply the materials for Mass, but are encouraged to continue to offer a gift of gratitude to support the priest celebrating the Mass. Currently in many developing nations, this is the only form of support priests receive.
At Fenwick, Mass is made available daily for students, staff and faculty: Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Friday before school at 7:30 a.m., and on Wednesday after school at 3:20 p.m. The Dominican friars of Fenwick regularly offer these Masses for those alumni of whose passing we are made aware. Please know that the friars are willing and eager to offer Mass for the needs of those in the greater Fenwick community as well.