A lot of people, including Catholics, think of Advent as being mainly a time for good cheer. It’s a time of the year where our culture uses the word “heartwarming” a lot.
But I am afraid we have lost something vital if we only think of it this way and forget that it is, in many ways, supposed to be similar to Lent, just as Christmas is similar to Easter.
In the Middle Ages, when Advent began on November 11, it was known as “St. Martin’s Lent”, and still to this day the colour of Advent, like Lent, is purple, the colour of repentance. And it seems to me that one of the most common sins of Advent is the sin of pride.
Of all the seven deadly sins, “pride” may not be the one we readily associate with the weeks leading up to Christmas. With all the rampant consumerism, “greed” seems like the more obvious candidate, and, perhaps for the world, it is.
But consider this example of pride, taken from an examination of conscience in an Anglo-Catholic breviary: “Being satisfied with religious feeling or sentimentality and not striving to know and do God’s will.”
“Religious feeling and sentimentality” is exactly what we traffic in during Advent. We love our songs that fill us with holiday spirit, our wreaths to decorate our tables, our concerts and creches that represent “the spirit of Christmas”. We may even do additional good works during this season, like volunteering to work with the poor.
All well and good in and of itself. But look at what St. Bernard of Clairvaux, considered “the doctor of Advent”, preached to his monks (who were some of the most rigorous in the world) during the Advent season.
“Virginity is a commendable virtue,” he tells his celibate confreres, “but humility an indispensable one.” Despite your virginity, he says – and this word does not just refer to the fact that they are unmarried, but also the fact that they have instead devoted their lives to a monastery – despite all that, it’s worthless without humility, and it would have been better to have never become a monk if you’re proud of being a monk.
St. Bernard even dares to say that Mary’s virginity would have been worthless without Mary’s humility. Therefore, he urges, study Mary’s humility. Only then will Christ be born in your heart.
In the same way, if all our Advent activities–even our good works for others–are ultimately intended to fill us with mere “religious feeling and sentimentality”, then it’s all just pride and ultimately worthless.
In that case, we are not really different from the world. These words may sound harsh for such a hopeful time as Advent.
But, as Catherine Doherty – the Catholic social worker and founder of Madonna House – put it, Advent is a pregnancy.
A pregnancy is a time of joyful hope and waiting, but it is also a time of pain, of uncertainty, of fear, and of active waiting: the mother must change her diet and habits and undergo suffering as she looks forward hopefully.
History, as the Bible repeatedly tells us, is also full of suffering as the coming of the Lord draws near; these are “the birth pangs of the Messiah”. We are not supposed to look away from this darkness during Advent; indeed, Advent is literally the time of year when it gets the darkest outside.
We have to look steadily at the fact of violence in the world and listen to the Book of James’ uncompromising indictment: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.”
The source of violence in the world, in other words, is our own pride, and Advent, like Lent, should be when fight against this by rooting out our own sinfulness and planting in its place the fruits of the Spirit.
It is a time to cultivate humility and to curb our own desires and “cravings”. It is a time to drop old habits and to pick up new ones that bring us closer to God — perhaps, against all the impulses of the world, by fasting in the days leading to Christmas.
Advent, then, is not just a pregnancy, but also a protest against the fallen world. For someone like Father Alfred Delp, the German Jesuit priest who was imprisoned and executed for his work against the Nazis, this protest took a stark visible form.
For him, Advent was God shaking us, and the world, into an awareness of His presence, an awareness which changes everything.
This is why he preached from prison an “Advent of the heart”. In his unheated cell, awaiting trial, he awkwardly crossed his chained hands and wrote a brief letter: “More, and on a deeper level, we really know all this time that all of life is Advent.”
Our own protest may not be as dramatic as Father Delp’s. But it should be no less a struggle against sin. Blessed John Henry Newman reminds us that Advent is ultimately a preparation for when Christ comes as judge.
In some ways, this should alarm us into a more serious pursuit of holiness. But this image, just as much as the Child in the manger, should give us hope, for it reminds us that He has overcome the world.
-Brett Fawcett is a teacher and columnist. He has degrees in theology and education and is the winner of the 2018 Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Social Studies Education.