The Meaning of Advent
Catherine Doherty, from 'Donkey Bells'
Used with permission Madonna House Publications
Advent is a strange word. It means 'coming'. And Advent is something that is 'arriving soon'. When we have something coming, when we expect and event, an advent, we are usually alert inside. We are listening. My family is coming for Christmas and I am in the country, and I am listening for the sound of a car. It is a special car, and I am filled with a special listening.
Advent is such a beautiful season. It is a time for renewal; it is especially a time for forgiveness because God brings His forgiveness to us in the shape of His Son. The Church year begins with the first Sunday of Advent. And very time it comes around, my heart thrills anew.
For me, the word 'advent' has a double connotation. It means the arrival of a new liturgical season, the preparatory time for Christmas, for 'the coming of Our Lord' as a Child on earth, for His incarnation in time. But it also means that other advent - the parousia, the second coming of Christ, in glory, at the end of the world. That is an advent which Russian hearts long for and expect. They hope it will happen in their lifetime, but, even if it doesn't, they rejoice that it will happen in someone else's lifetime. These two Advents, blend in my soul, mind and heart. They bring a hunger and a longing that beggars words, for they are the seasons of expectation. Expectation of what? Of whom? To me, of the Tremendous Lover, of the Lord, Christ.
To me, the bells of this season, whenever they ring, either for Mass or for the Angelus, always have the joyous sound of wedding bells. For Advent is 'the springtime of love', when the soul awaits her Lover, knowing deep down that He is coming and that He will make her His own!
This knowledge is unshakable. It is based on a faith that is immovable, filled with a knowledge that is found, not in books, but in the prayer of silence, the prayer of love.
To meet this Lover, our Bridegroom, we must be awake for Him. In his letter to the Romans (13:11-14), Saint Paul calls us in a loud voice to arise from our sleep! Our salvation is nearer that we believed; the night has passed, and the day is at hand. This call of his means now! Today! Every day of the year, every hour of every day is the hour for us to arise from our sleep.
We have so many 'sleeps'. We have that strange inner sleep that wants to escape from what ever we have to conduct in the marketplace with the powers of secularism. And we have that other emotional sleep that drags us into bed (literally, if we only could get there) to escape an even bigger fight with the powers of darkness within ourselves. For we know that we have to 'die to self' so that we may live in Christ, and this is hard for us to face.
We also have to fight the simple sleep of weariness that any vocation places on the shoulders of its members - weariness of body, weariness of mind, and weariness of soul.
Yes, Saint Paul is right: we must arise from our sleep. Let us come out of the night of our emotions- the night of our anger, of our hostility, of all those negativities within us. Let us walk in the daylight of simplicity, of friendship, of forgiveness, of understanding, of tenderness and gentleness to one another.
Advent is a time for this arising. It is such a joyous season, such a loving season! Let us enter into its joy.
Advent in Old Russia
My mother used to say that the days of Advent were the days of building a golden stairway that would lead us to a star, the star of Bethlehem. And this, in turn, would lead us straight to the Christ Child.
In my youth, that stairway was real. Each day I could see and touch each step of it, as it was being built. The first steps were made of cleanliness. We began clearing from the inside out.
First, there was the Advent fast: to clean the soul of all its past faults and sins, to make penance for them, to wash it with tears, and the heart with contrition.
As in Lent, all meat, milk products, eggs, and sugar disappeared from the family table, to be replaced with fish, vegetables, and honey. The parish church became the focal point of our daily lives, and church services dominated the day.
But there was a difference. In Lent, the Russian women donned dark garments, took off their jewelry, and allowed no music in the house for the forty sad, cruel days of the Lord's passion. Not so in Advent. On the contrary, there was talk of new clothing. There was a flurry of buying materials and of sewing. There was much music in the air, and the practicing of hymns and songs to be sung on the Holy Night. Even the fast itself was one of joyous expectation.
Masses, communions, confessions, and evening services in the church followed one another closely throughout the days. To accompany these inner preparations, outward cleaning and scrubbing went on feverishly all about the house, with everyone humming snatches from ageless tunes.
The first to be cleaned and polished were the icons, which shone and became alive under the flickering shadows of the votive lamps- red and blue and green. To my childish eyes, they were the forerunners of the lovely candles on the Christmas tree.
A Short Season - A Long Journey
Advent is a short season, yet it covers a long distance. It is the road of a soul from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It seems such a short distance as we are accustomed to thinking of distances. Yet it is a road into infinity, into eternity. It has a beginning, but no end. In truth, Advent is the road of the spiritual life which all of us must start if we do not want to miss the way.
We must start with a 'fiat' that re-echoes Mary's fiat ("Let it be done, O Lord") . It is a fiat that each of us should say in the quiet of our hearts.
Let us arise, then. Let us shake the sleep out of our eyes - the sleep of emotions run amuck; the sleep of indifference, of tepidity, of self-pity, of fighting God. Let us arise from that sleep with its dark nightmares, and begin our journey to Bethlehem.
But let us understand that this 'Bethlehem' we seek is within our own souls, our own hearts, our own minds. Advent is a time of standing still, and yet making a pilgrimage. It is an inner pilgrimage, a pilgrimage in which we don't use our feet. We stand still; yet, in a manner of speaking, we walk a thousand miles across the world - just because we chose to stand still.
So, then. Let us enter, you and I, into the pilgrimage that doesn't take us from home. For ours is a journey of the spirit, which is a thousand times harder than a journey of the feet. Let us 'arise and go'.
Catherine de Hueck Doherty was the founder of Madonna House, in Combermere, Ontario, Canada.
'Donkey Bells' and others of her works can be purchased from Madonna House Publications,
Published by Madonna House Publications, 1994.
"Donkey Bells" © Copyright Madonna House Publications, 1994.