As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
Behold I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert:
"Prepare the way of the Lord,
Make straight his paths."
John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. (Mark 1:2-5)
And this is what he proclaimed: One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."(Mark 1:7-8)
The huge, beautiful wreath is on the altar steps at my parish. Two Sundays have come in with that Advent wreath. Two of its purple candles have been lit; a pink and purple one remain.
How I love Advent, that time of reflection and preparation for the second coming of Christ and for the celebration of His first, His birth. I am grateful for Advent. Instead of hustle and bustle through malls, guided by lists, it is about contemplation and watchfulness in our lives, guided by Scripture.
Church is the place, the most serene place, where I can go to prepare my heart and soul for Christmas, though I do a very imperfect job of it. But without that spiritual haven I fear I would be a very stressed-out Scrooge, lost in a sea of consumerism.
My parents always made sure that Jesus was foremost in our home, but for most of my life Christmas was a day out of the year. It showed up on the 25th of December, and what came before was mostly a bunch of wishing and hoping and scrambling. If there was a season leading to it, it was a season of worrying about gifts, cleaning house, decorating, preparing food, and listening to holiday tunes. After December 25th passed I did not know the Christmas season continued through the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany, that feast commemorating the Three Kings, representative of all gentiles, bringing gifts to our Lord: Prophet, Priest and King. I didn't know that for many the Christmas season only ended after the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus on a Sunday in January. I didn't know, because I wasn't Catholic.
I never grasped the joy and depth and spiritual variety there was to be found in a year - not even the joy to be found in Christmas and especially Easter - until I understood the times of preparation in the Catholic liturgical calendar. Then something strange occurred; as I contemplated that calendar, I began to make a deeper connection between the Old and the New Testament. Before - undoubtedly through my own fault - there was a big disconnect.
As Christians we know that God told the Israelites to observe certain fasts and feasts every year. Passover was to be ...a memorial feast for you, which all your generations shall celebrate with pilgrimage to the Lord, as a perpetual institution. (Exodus 12) God also commanded, Three times a year you shall celebrate a pilgrim feast to me. (Exodus 23:14) Many times the Israelites were to abstain from leavened bread and make designated offerings to God. Now, because we have received the spirit of adoption, all our feasts and fasts - Pentecost and the Mass of the Lord's Supper, for example - revolve around Christ, and we believe that those Old Testament observances were a prefigurement of the New Covenant Jesus established. He was the fulfillment.
So when we fast and give alms for the forty days of Lent before Easter - in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are truly suffering in this world - we are imitating Christ's fast in the desert (and the wondering of the Israelites before entering the Promised Land) and thus preparing ourselves to celebrate Easter in a more profound way. For we believe Easter, like Christmas, is not just a day that shows up out of the blue. Before we welcome it, our hope is to deepen our relationship with God by truly examining ourselves and our sins and picking up our cross and following Jesus. A week before Easter we attend Palm Sunday Mass, carrying palm branches and singing, "Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" and reading Jesus' Passion aloud. During the Triduum we celebrate the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper when we read the account of the First Passover and the Last Supper, and the priest washes the feet of twelve people - men, women and children - in imitation of Christ. The next night we attend Good Friday Mass, and parishioners carry in a wooden cross, pausing three times, in imitation of the one our Savior carried. Then comes Holy Saturday Night when we trace salvation history through multiple Scripture readings from Genesis to the Gospel, and finally dawns Easter morning, and again we rejoice and sing at Mass, Alleluia!
Advent and Lent are our spiritual journeys - following Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, walking and fasting with Christ in the desert - to the holiest days of the year: Christmas and Easter. The purpose is always the same in these seasons of our year of faith: to remind us of important events in our salvation history and to prepare us to welcome more fully the bountiful blessings and grace we receive from our Maker.
Our liturgical year began anew the first Sunday of Advent, and again we will try, yes - try - to prepare ourselves for Christ. Not by making lists and checking them twice, not by cooking mounds of cookies, not by worrying about whether we're spending enough or too much on gifts, and not by sending Christmas cards will we ready ourselves. Instead, we will prepare ourselves by coming to Mass and lighting the wreath to remind us of the Light of the World. We will hopefully ponder how we can reflect more of that Light as we kneel and pray and receive communion and, along with thousands of our brothers and sisters in Christian churches around the world, sing:
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Shall come to you,
And Jesus will be our Lord of the Dance throughout the liturgical year.