Christmas without Advent, like Easter without Lent, paints the Church year in chiaroscuro.1 Penitential, lean seasons such as Advent are gifts to the Church. Penitential seasons of heavy fasting, prayer, silence, and charity are a gift to Christians because they expose sin and provide the opportunity to grow in virtue and holiness. They keep the Church honest. Without penitential seasons preceding a season of triumph (Christmas or Easter), hypocrisy begins to creep into the Church. For if the Church only rejoices in triumphal times and only practices feast days, it refuses to acknowledge the gravity and seriousness of sin. As it calls the world to repentance, it refuses to repent itself. Like Dante’s hypocrites in lower Hell, the Church is cloaked in gold, but underneath it carries lead-heavy burdens. Its exterior is glorious, but internally it is weighed down, refusing to cast off that which kills and that which Christ commands it be rid of. Without a season of pruning, Christians are in danger of moving from feast to feast, never experiencing a lengthy season in which to reckon with sin, both corporate and individual. In this way, the church needs Advent, Christians need Advent, the Classical, Christian school needs Advent.
Three Ways to Keep Advent
First, practice charity. In Question 23 of the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas calls charity “God himself”; he goes on to write that, “charity is not vanity, indeed it is opposed to vanity,” and “it is of infinite power, since it brings the human soul to infinite good.” He concludes his objections by stating that “charity justifies the soul.” The practice of charity, specifically almsgiving to the poor and needy during Advent, reaches far back into Church tradition. Christians in Advent, anticipating the lowly entrance of God incarnate, give to honor their neighbor and seek the low and humble place for themselves. Charity, rightly practiced, exposes vanity, and it seeks to “consider others more important,” as St. Paul commands. Giving can be challenging in a digital-money age. Online portals disconnect giving from people and things. During Advent, we should strive to practice charity in an incarnated, rather than digital way. Meals for the homeless, cookies for neighbors (especially if you have children), or coats for the cold are all simple beginnings in charity. A few weeks ago, someone at the gas station asked me to finish filling up their gas tank, because they could not afford it. Assuredly, it was more my joy than theirs. In practicing charity, we give up something to seek Christ and to love our neighbor, all as we anticipate the Feast of the Nativity.
Second, practice fasting. Fasting rebukes. It teaches us to remember our need for physical provision from the Father, Son, and Spirit. Furthermore, it reminds us that we need God. We practice Christmas too early, when, as T.S. Eliot penned, we “look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit our self-reflection.” Fasting aids self-reflection; it exposes that our souls need God more than our bodies need food, but we are dependent upon God for both. Beginners can start with simple steps forward. Give up something fully, diligently, with no wavering. Skip lunch on Friday or meat on Wednesday or do not drink until December 25th. Let your body remind your soul of God. Let fasting lead to prayer, leading to communion with the Holy Trinity. Without fasting, charity is a flimsy thing to practice during the season of Advent. Feasting and giving is not the same as giving up and going without. More importantly, neither are rightly down without prayer.
Third, practice prayer. Prayer binds the soul to God and brings glory to the Father, Son, and Spirit. Advent should be a season of prayer and holy silence; Church tradition knows it as hesychasm. In W. H. Auden’s Christmas poem, “For the Time Being” (1944), Auden includes an interchange between Joseph and the angel, Gabriel, who appears to him in his dream. After asking three times for some sign that this child is from God, Auden has Gabriel answer Jospeh abruptly: “No, you must believe; Be silent, and sit still.” Auden captures the purpose of Advent in Jospeh’s waiting, be silent before God, communion with him with reverence and stillness, so before the Feast of the Nativity, the church is called to silent anticipation and prayerful communion with God in a particularly focused way. The fat of feasting and noise are trimmed away, the lean sinful soul is exposed in silence before God, for only here can virtue begin to grow in place of vice. Resolve to pray more than you have previously. Resolve to pray more ardently, constantly, diligently, and reverently. Humble yourself before the throne, before the manger, and before the cross. In doing so, the lean time will prepare your soul for Christmas feasting, setting God as the center of both Advent and Christmastide.
Keep Christmas Too
When Christmas comes, give Christ his due. Keep all twelve days of Christmas. Christmas needs Advent, and Advent needs 12 days of Christmas. Together, they serve Christian pilgrims journeying toward the Kingdom of God, and they glorify the Triune God rightly, fully. Walk upstream against the current on December 26th. As your neighbors’ Christmas music and lights go down, rejoice for all twelve days. Light the tree, sing carols, feast, and glory in hope incarnate. For through Advent and Christmas, your “spirit must practice…[its] scales of rejoicing” until “Christ cometh again.”2
- Peter Leithart, In Media Res
- T.S. Eliot