Monday, November 7, 2016

An Ambrosian Advent

Because Christmas Day falls on Sunday this year, the Advent season will be the longest it can be in the Roman Rite - a full four weeks from November 27 to December 24. This is good for those who like Advent, who like the season's beautiful textual and musical treasures and appreciate how this time more than any other in the liturgical calendar corresponds to the sense and feel of the natural season. 

But, if Advent is your thing, then even better that the Roman Advent is the Ambrosian Advent, which begins always on the Sunday after the feast of Saint Martin of Tours (November 11) and thus has six Sundays instead of the Roman Rite's four. So in Milan and those other places where the Ambrosian Rite is still followed, Advent begins this coming Sunday, November 13. (Photo: Antiphon from Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent in the Ambrosian Rite.) 

The Ambrosian Rite of Milan is an ancient Latin Rite, which has evolved over the centuries (as all rites do), but which has survived - and indeed thrived - as a distinctive Latin Rite up until the present time. When Charlemagne tried to suppress its use in favor of the Roman Rite, the then Archbishop supposedly persuaded the Emperor to allow a trial in which a Roman and an Ambrosian liturgical book were left closed for three days on the altar of Saint Peter's in Rome. The theory was that at the end of the three days the one which God preferred would be found opened. As it happened, they were both found opened. So it was resolved that God found both rites equally acceptable!

In the same spirit, the Second Vatican Council declared that in faithful obedience to tradition, the sacred Council declares that holy Mother Church holds all lawfully acknowledged rites to be of equal right and dignity; that she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 4).


Anyone who loves Advent knows all too well how filled with difficulties its contemporary celebration has become. The commercial Christmas, which used to begin with Thanksgiving and now begins right after Halloween, has crowded out all alternatives. Advent's solemn opening notes on "Doomsday Sunday" are submerged in the Thanksgiving "holiday weekend," while by the time we get to the second and subsequent Sundays it is already Christmas for all practical purposes. The great classic Advent hymns are always worth singing - even in a church already all decked out with trees, wreaths, lights, and poinsettias. But their message barely penetrates the already anticipated feast that formerly marked Advent's end.

There is no point fighting any of that. In any competition between Advent and Christmas, clearly Christmas will always win. Nor should they be in competition. 

But what if we effectively moved Advent back into November, a month already identified with the end-of-time theme? A limited liturgical horizon might think this rather radical. But then the Milanese have done this for centuries with their six-week Ambrosian Advent! And even in the Roman tradition, there was a obvious continuity - rather than a break - between the final weeks of the old Time after Pentecost and Advent. (The modern notion that Advent "begins" the liturgical year is simply an inference from the fact that printed Missals and Breviaries have to start somewhere.)

What I am proposing isn't going to happen, of course, for all sorts of institutional reasons. But what if we moved Christ the King back to the last Sunday in October, restoring its original connection with All Saints Day? Then perhaps the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica could also be moved permanently to the Sunday following All Saints and All Souls - uniting the four celebrations in a single Fulfillment-of-the-Kingdom mini-season? Advent, beginning so soon after, would again stand in evident continuity with the preceding weeks of what we now boringly call "Ordinary Time." Then, by December, the second half of Advent would naturally flow right into the contemporary anticipation of Christmas.

Just a suggestion.

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