By FATHER DOUGLAS K. CLARK, STL, Commentary | Published December 6, 2012
The end of a calendar year in modern American culture has become an odd and frenzied mixture of the sacred and the profane. From Thanksgiving through New Year’s, this culture offers a heady mixture of consumerism, special foods accompanied by a great deal of drink, major football games, lavish decorations, family get-togethers—and increasing stress and melancholy. There are, to be sure, religious aspects to this season that have not entirely disappeared, but they seem to be receding into the background as “Happy Holidays” gains ground over “Merry Christmas.”
Thanksgiving began as an expression of gratitude to God for the many benefits bestowed during the past year, although much of what we actually do (including stuffing ourselves with food and drink, watching endless hours of football while in turkey-induced stupors, and shopping until we drop) has little to do with gratitude or with God.
Christmas itself remains a national holiday, and many Americans still include a church service as part of their family holiday traditions, often after a prolonged lapse in attendance. American Jews have made the relatively minor festival of Hanukkah a sort of equivalent to Christmas. And some African-Americans celebrate Kwanzaa. But the increased secularity of our times is gradually turning holy days into mere holidays, a series of generic celebrations that are not particularly focused or coherent.
The Catholic tradition offers believers something radically different and spiritually profound.
First of all, the Catholic tradition prepares for the festival celebrating the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ with an extended season of about four weeks called “Advent.”
Advent is a time to reflect on the meaning of Christ’s first coming into the world long ago, its implications for us here and now, and for our future and that of all creation: “You came to gather the nations into the peace of God’s kingdom … You come in word and sacrament to strengthen us in holiness … You will come in glory with salvation for your people.”
While the rest of the country is already decked out in the red and green of Christmas, Catholic churches are marked by violet vestments, candles and hangings (with a light rose optional for the Third Sunday of Advent). While the rest of the culture anticipates “the holidays” with Christmas (or Christmas-like) music, Catholics are not supposed to sing carols or Christmas songs during Advent, at least at Mass. Indeed, during Advent, “use of the organ and other musical instruments and the decoration of the altar with flowers should be done in a moderate manner, as is consonant with the character of the season, without anticipating the full joy of the Christmas season.” Catholic churches can and should be oases of calm amid the frenzy that surrounds us, especially during the joyful time of Advent.
While merchants urge shopping sprees, Catholic parishes offer the sacrament of penance, often making use of the communal celebration of reconciliation, with many priests available for individual confessions.
At the risk of sounding like a “Catholic Puritan,” I admit to feeling uneasy about a tendency to anticipate Christmas during Advent. Here and there, Christmas decorations find their way into our sanctuaries before Christmas Eve. We play Christmas music during Advent in our homes and schools, although (I hope) not in our churches. We put up our Christmas trees and decorations early, unlike our ancestors who often waited until Christmas Eve to do so. And we enjoy our Christmas parties (during Advent) as much as anyone else—sometimes even hosting them ourselves.
And when Christmas finally arrives, we celebrate the Christ-Mass as early as we can (the proliferation of vigil Masses is another story) and then, like most of the culture, we’re done with Christmas on or about Dec. 26. We take down our trees and gear up for New Year’s shindigs. The “Twelve Days” of Christmas (actually a bit more, as the liturgical Christmas season lasts through the Epiphany until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord).
And it’s a shame. We’ve let the tempo and rhythm of a non-Catholic culture override the deliberate tempo and intricate rhythm of our Catholic liturgical year, which unfolds at its own pace and calls us to look at our lives and our world through the prism of the “blessed hope, the appearance of the great God and of our savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13), which we should await with “devout and expectant delight” during Advent and then celebrate with all the solemnity at our command during the 12-plus days of the Christmas season.