Today we begin the new Liturgical Year and the Season of Advent in preparation for the great feast of Christmas. Advent is a penitential time, though not so severe as Lent, and this is why there are no flowers in the Church and our music is a little more sober. We also refrain from using the Gloria during the mass as another way of distinguishing the season.
Often people undertake some fasting in Advent and in some Christian countries people try to avoid meat at this time. Christians often observe a ‘fast before the feast’ which makes the feasting all the more welcome when it finally arrives.
You will see that the colour of the priest’s vestments is now purple, reminding us of the purple worn in Lent. You might notice that the shade of purple worn in Advent is slightly different and a bit lighter than that of Lent, and it could more properly be called violet. This is to reflect the fact that the emphasis is not so much on penance but more on expectant waiting.
One of the dangers of modern society is that one season blends into another. Prior to the nineteen-eighties the food available in most shops was seasonal, but today we can easily obtain foods from different parts of the world at any time of the year.
For example, asparagus was in previous generations only obtainable in Britain from St George’s Day, 23rd April, through to Midsummer’s Day on 21st June. But now we can get asparagus from Peru or other countries at any time of the year and we no longer think of it as an early summer treat. I expect that asparagus might even end up on a few people’s Christmas menus.
Although this availability of foodstuffs throughout the year is intended to enhance our lives, it actually makes life blander and means that we are increasingly losing touch with the differences the seasons ought to bring to our lives.
Our lives can quite definitely be enriched by experiencing the differences that come with winter, spring, summer and autumn. If we stick to the example of the food we eat, we can consume the earthier vegetables such as swede, beetroot and leeks in the winter months and then move on to things like beans, courgettes and peaches in the summer months.
By eating foods in the correct season, we will be more in touch with nature and will have a good balance of light and shade in our lives and we will be able to enjoy the differences each season brings. And this is not to speak of the harm to the environment caused by transporting a vast quantity of food across the globe.
This Church understands these things very well and it has its own sequence of liturgical seasons each with their different emphases, and by this means it is able to lead us through the important events of the life of Christ each year. The Liturgical Year highlights the differences of each season with its fasts and feasts, with its times of joy and sorrow, with its times of penance and, as with the season of Advent, its times of expectation.
There are other differences too, and an important one of these is that in each of the three years of the liturgical cycle we adopt the viewpoint of one of the authors of the Synoptic Gospels. Last year we worked our way through St Matthew’s Gospel and this year we see the life of Christ from the perspective of St Luke.
Each of these writers has their own particular accent and sees the significance of certain moments in the life of Christ from a different angle. Again, this is a great enrichment for us all.
The great theme of the Season of Advent is expectation. This expectation has two aspects. First, of course, we are anticipating the celebration of the birth of Christ at Christmas. And secondly, we look forward to and await Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. So, with the one we have an eye on the past and with the other an eye on the future.
These two expectations are inter-related and as we prepare for Christmas we find that we are doing precisely the sort of things that will help to prepare ourselves to meet Christ on that great Day of Days at the end of time.
In today’s Gospel Christ tells us to stay awake because we never know when that time will come. And of course, the time he is referring to is the Last Day when Christ will come in all his glory to judge the heavens and the earth.
We looked at the Gospel account of the Day of Judgement last week when we celebrated the Feast of Christ the King and by being reminded of its vital importance today on this First Sunday of the Liturgical Year we see a certain continuity in the liturgy as we move from one year to another
When Jesus says to us, ‘Stay awake,’ he does not mean that we should literally go without sleep. He is giving us a metaphor and reminding us to be alert and to put our lives in order because we can never know when the Day of the Lord will come.
There is always a danger of complacency in the Christian life. It is one of the human weaknesses that the Devil knows very well he can exploit.
The book entitled The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis is to be highly recommended. It is a fictional account of a series of letters from a senior to a junior devil. In it the senior devil tells his junior that if all other temptations fail the junior devil should tell his victim that there is no hurry. This will lead the victim into a false sense of security and give the junior devil more time to tempt him and so gradually and inevitably lead him away from the Lord.
We fallible human beings often feel that we can carry on with our faults and human weaknesses and that we can repent on some future date. Unfortunately, that day of repentance quite often never comes. We grow accustomed to our sins and before we know it we discover that they have become deeply ingrained habits that, ultimately, we find we cannot change.
For a long-term smoker to give up tobacco requires a herculean effort and often they have many false starts. It is the same with us when we find we have fallen into a deeply ingrained habit of sin. When we eventually wake up and realise the consequences of our sinfulness we find it very difficult to overcome this obstacle to our faith.
However, Advent is a good time for reconciliation. It is a good time to repent of our sins, perhaps firstly so that we can celebrate Christmas in good conscience, but also so that we can prepare ourselves for that much greater encounter with the Lord of Life on that crucial day when we will meet him face to face.