|That the Light that Shows Like a Will-o'-the-Wisp on the Horizon May Brighten into the Perfect Day.
The First Sunday of Advent.
Lessons from the secondary dominica, according to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Isaiah 63: 16-17, 19; 64: 2-7.
• Psalm 80: 2-3, 15-16, 18-19.
• I Corinthians 1: 3-9.
• Mark 13: 33-37.
2:40 PM 11/30/2014 — As you are no doubt aware, there are many different versions and translations of the Bible into English. The one you're most familiar with, I'm sure, is the one we read from at Holy Mass, the New American Bible Revised Edition, which is, without question, an improvement over the previous edition which was simply called the New American Bible. Those of you who occasionally attend Mass in the Extraordinary Form are certainly familiar with the Douay-Rheims version of 1609, which is used whenever the readings are done in the vernacular; I grew up with the Challoner-Rheims, which was a 19th Century revision of the Douay done by the holy Bishop Richard Challoner in England. But by far my favorite version of Holy Writ is the Knox Bible, an English Catholic translation based mostly on St. Jerome's Latin Vulgate—though it is highly influenced by many of the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts—released in pieces at the beginning of the last century, but finally published in a single volume for the first time in 1954. It was a labor of love done by one man, Msgr. Ronald A. Knox, a priest and convert to Catholicism who was—and probably remains—the greatest classical language scholar who ever lived. He was a fascinating and versatile man, and one day I hope to have occasion to tell you more about him.
Among his many accomplishments—and, believe me, there are many—he was known as a very gifted preacher, and one of the first sermons of his I read was an Advent sermon he preached in 1947.
Everybody knows [says Msgr. Knox] what it is to plod on for miles, it seems, eagerly straining your eyes towards the lights that, somehow, mean home. How difficult it is, when you are doing that, to judge distances! In pitch darkness, it might be a couple of miles to your destination, it might be a few hundred yards. So it was, I think, with the Hebrew prophets, as they looked forward to the redemption of their people. They could not have told you, within a hundred years, within five hundred years, when it was the deliverance would come. They only knew that, some time, the stock of David would burgeon anew; some time, a key would be found to fit the door of their prison house; some time, the light that only showed, now, like a will-o'-the-wisp on the horizon would broaden out, at last, into the perfect day.*
I don't think anyone but Father Knox could have expressed so clearly, in just a few sentences, what Advent is really all about. We all think we know what Advent is: a preparation for Christmas; but, as Msgr. Knox so beautifully tells us, the Church's intention in Advent is to encourage in us a reproduction of the spirit of the Old Testament prophets calling forth repentance upon the people of Israel as they awaited the coming of the Savior. The readings for the Advent season rely heavily on the prophets, particularly the prophet Isaiah; even the Gospel lessons chosen frequently present to us those occasions—and there were many—wherein our Lord quotes from the prophets; and, if we take them as a whole, we realize that what most of us think Advent is about isn't really what it's about. Recall the Collect that the priest prayed at the beginning of Mass today: “Grant to your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom.” There's no mention of Christmas there; the Advent we await is not the coming of the Baby Jesus in the Manger; the Advent we await is the coming of Christ the King and Judge of the world. In other words, it's the not the first coming of Christ for which the season is preparing us; it's His second.
Advent is not a very ancient tradition in the Church like Lent or Easter. Throughout the history of the Church there have been a variety of different customs for this time of year in different places. The first mention of anything similar to it is from the year 580, when the Council of Saragossa, Spain, directed that, from December 17th until Christmas, no one was permitted to be absent from Divine Services, and in the same 6th Century in Gaul a sort of Lent was observed from November 11th until Christmas; but, there's nothing in the liturgical texts from either place that suggest these observances had anything to do with Christmas as such. It wouldn't be until the end of the 6th Century that Pope Saint Gregory the Great would introduce the current custom of Advent, beginning on the Sunday nearest the feast of the Apostle Andrew, November 30th. It wouldn't become popular in the Eastern Churches until the 9th Century, except that for them, even today, the season begins on the day after the feast of the Apostle Philip, November 14th; so, their Advent, which is called Phillip's Fast, lasts for six weeks rather than four; and, since I served in the Byzantine Church for twenty years, I'm familiar with that custom very well.
A couple of weeks ago I had mentioned in passing that we were approaching “the penitential season of Advent,” and someone approached me after Mass a little confused because he had been under the impression, he said, that Advent was supposed to be a joyful season. Well, for a Christian every season is a joyful season; but, Pope Saint Gregory never called it Advent;—that's what we call it—he called it the Christmas Lent. That's why the priest wears the color of Lent for Advent. The focus of the season is reflection upon and confession of our sins.
To be fair, Advent today is divided into two parts, what we could call First Advent and Second Advent. Second Advent, which begins on December 17th, is specifically directed toward preparing us for the celebration of the Nativity of Christ; but, if you're inclined to pay attention to the readings and texts of the Mass, you'll notice that First Advent, which begins today, has nothing to do with Christmas; it's all focused on preparing our souls for our final judgment, and prayer, fasting and confession should be our focus.
So, here are my recommendations to you for your own observance of Advent. Keep in mind that these are only recommendations, as the Church does not require us to do anything in particular during this season; these are simply three things that I'm suggesting you might consider to help you enter into the spirit of the season as intended by Holy Mother Church:
Number One: embrace the fasting regulations of Lent. If you are one of those who uses the option of replacing the Friday abstinence from meat outside of Lent with some other penance, consider not doing that for Advent. If you are already observing the Friday abstinence all year long and not replacing it with another penance, consider taking a page from the Eastern Churches, and abstain from meat during Advent on Wednesdays as well as Fridays. In the early Church, from the 2nd Century on, they abstained on both days, anyway.
Number Two: add an examination of conscience to your evening prayers. Of course, an examination of conscience is traditionally always a part of a Catholic's night prayers, but—let's face it—how many of us actually do it faithfully? Advent would be a good time to rediscover that tradition.
Number Three: go to confession often. If you're going to confession once a month, during Advent go twice a month. If you haven't been to confession in a while, now is the time to get back into the habit. Remember that confession does two things for us: not only does it offer us absolution from the sins we've committed, but it also gives us a special grace to avoid sin in the future; and, even if we're foolish and brazen enough to believe we don't need the first, we always need the second. And it is a fact that people who confess frequently always find they have more to confess, not because going to confession makes them sin more, but because going to confession makes them more sensitive to the venial sins we all commit every day, that can so easily escape our notice.
One of my classmates, who is the bishop of a diocese in the Midwest, has decided that, during the season of Advent this year in his cathedral, all the Masses will be celebrated with the priest and people facing the same direction from the same side of the altar, what most people would refer to incorrectly as the priest “having his back to the people”; and he's encouraged all of his priests in that diocese to do the same in their parishes. Many people today are not aware that this has always been allowed; there's nothing in the new Mass that requires the priest to face the people at the altar. In fact, in the new translation of the Missal that we've been using for a few years now, the instructions and rubrics given to the priest presume that he is not facing the people when he stands at the altar. He may face the people from the opposite side of the altar, but he is not required to. Pope Benedict used to do this routinely, and Pope Francis has done it, too, on a couple of occasions; he doesn't do it at his daily Mass because the chapel in the place where he lives is not set up that way, but when he celebrates a public Mass in the Sistine Chapel, such as when he did the Mass for young couples during which he baptized their babies, he always does it facing the same way as the people from the same side of the altar. Pope Benedict encouraged priests to offer Mass this way because too many people, he said, were misled during that confusing period after the Council into believing that the Mass was supposed to be a meal, and that we were supposed to celebrate it like a family gathered around a dinning room table; but, that was never the intention of the Church—nor was it the understanding of the Early Church—that the priest at the altar would stand in opposition to the people with the altar forming a kind of clerical barrier between them.
Today, it's most common for the priest to face the people, and there is important symbolism in that. As the priest prays, he sees the faces of the people, and they see his. This reminds us that we are a community, one body in Christ; and, it reminds us that the Eucharist is the center of our lives. But that doesn't mean that it must always be that way, because there's symbolism that's just as important whenever the priest and the people are all on the same side of the altar, facing the Risen Christ as one, facing the east, even if the east they face together is a symbolic one. It is a powerful witness to Christ's imminent return; and, in an age when we are so easily distracted away from the care of our souls and complacent in our spiritual lives and the spreading of the Gospel, we need reminders that Christ will come.
I would like to have done it today for this First Sunday of Advent, but I decided not to because people whose devotion has no sense of history don't often react well to things they're not used to, and I can't deal with the aggravation of having people write letters to the bishop about me; but, I do want you to be aware of it. Perhaps, at some point during this season, we'll do it at a weekday Mass just as an illustration of how powerful a symbol it can be for the priest and the congregation to stand as one facing the Risen Lord, especially in this chapel which has no distinct sanctuary and we are all in such close proximity. As my classmate explained to his people in his diocesan newspaper: "In the ad orientem posture at Mass, the priest will not be facing away from the people. He will be with them—among them, and leading them—facing Christ, and waiting for his return. 'Be watchful!' says Jesus. 'Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.' We do not know when the time will come for Christ to return. But we know that we must watch for him. May we 'face the east,' together, watching for Christ in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and in our lives."**
* R. A. Knox, Sermon on Advent, December 21, 1947.
** Most Rev. James D. Conley, DD, STL, "Looking to the East," The Southern Nebraska Register, Friday, November 21, 2014.