Christmas has devoured Advent, gobbled it up with the turkey giblets and the goblets of seasonal ale. Every secularized holiday, of course, tends to lose the context it had in the liturgical year. Across the nation, even in many churches, Easter has hopped across Lent, Halloween has frightened away All Saints, and New Year's has drunk up Epiphany.
Still, the disappearance of Advent seems especially disturbing--for it's injured even the secular Christmas season: opening a hole, from Thanksgiving on, that can be filled only with fiercer, madder, and wilder attempts to anticipate Christmas.
More Christmas trees. More Christmas lights. More tinsel, more tassels, more glitter, more glee--until the glut of candies and carols, ornaments and trimmings, has left almost nothing for Christmas Day. For much of America, Christmas itself arrives nearly as an afterthought: not the fulfillment, but only the end, of the long Yule season that has burned without stop since the stores began their Christmas sales.
Of course, even in the liturgical calendar, the season points ahead to Christmas. Advent genuinely is adventual--a time before, a looking forward--and it lacks meaning without Christmas. But maybe Christmas, in turn, lacks meaning without Advent. All those daily readings from Isaiah, filled with visions of things yet to be, a constant barrage of the future tense: And it shall come to pass ... And there shall come forth ... A kind of longing pervades the Old Testament selections read in church over the weeks before Christmas--an anxious, almost sorrowful litany of hope only in what has not yet come. Zephaniah. Judges. Malachi. Numbers. I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: There shall come a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.
What Advent is, really, is a discipline: a way of forming anticipation and channeling it toward its goal. There's a flicker of rose on the third Sunday--Gaudete!, that day's Mass begins: Rejoice!--but then it's back to the dark purple that is the mark of the season in liturgical churches. And what those somber vestments symbolize is the deeply penitential design of Advent. Nothing we can do earns us the gift of Christmas, any more than Lent earns us Easter. But a season of contrition and sacrifice prepares us to understand and feel something about just how great the gift is when at last the day itself arrives.
More than any other holiday, Christmas seems to need its setting in the...