“We are now in the Christmas season, a time of beauty, tenderness, and drama, a time rich in graces for the soul. The Church and the soul are struggling through the darkness toward the Light. The longing and expectancy of Advent are feelings familiar to the heart of man. And the story of Jesus’ infancy, together with its celebration within the Christian family, make this season the most lovable of the year.” So wrote the great 20th-century liturgist Pius Parsch in his famous commentary on the liturgical year, The Church’s Year of Grace, volume 1 (tr. William G. Heidt, The Liturgical Press, 1962).
Parsch had some particularly interesting things to say about Advent – and about how Advent has changed over time. “If we truly study the liturgy of the early Church, we will find that this season was a preparation for Christ’s Second coming. The very first Gospel of the Advent season deals with the end of the world. … In modern times the commemoration of our Savior’s birth has become the main theme of the Christmas season. … Each year our people await the birth of Christ as if it had not yet happened. However, because the liturgy is concerned not merely with history but principally with present reality, it continues to make Christ’s first coming a symbol of His coming in grace, of His sacramental advent in the Sacrifice of holy Mass.”
Or, as I often like to say when speaking about Advent, the Church uses the celebration of the anniversary Christ’s First Coming at Christmas to focus our attention on being prepared for his Second Coming at the end of history, meanwhile alerting us to his presence among us in this interim between Christmas and the end. That, I think, is the proper spirit in which to observe Advent. Our joyful celebration of Christ’s first coming in the past should stir up our hope (as we pray at every Mass) for the final fulfillment of God’s kingdom in the future while empowering us for faithful living in the present.
In our culture, Christmas is already by now the object of feverish celebration. There is no point opposing that or pretending it isn’t happening, as if we could (or should) live in two totally compartmentalized worlds - one spiritual, the other secular (as if such a total separation were really a serious option). There may be much to question about the contemporary American Christmas, especially its obsession with personal and corporate profit. The authentic spirit of Christmas challenges us to counter that obsession. Advent’s sober sensitivity to human history’s eventual end in Christ’s coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead (as we say each Sunday in the Creed) is an excellent aid, given us by the Church, to recognize the challenge inherent in the authentic spirit of Christmas and to respond to it in hope.