Diary of a Former Pagan: Celebrating Advent as a Catholic

In honoring Mary's pregnancy, we are reminded of that most subversive of spiritual qualities: patience.

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But of all the patronal saints in the Celtic world, only Andrew is commemorated at (or near) the beginning of Advent. Thinking about Andrew makes me think of how the ancient Celtic Christians were said to honor not one, but three "seasons of Lent" over the course of the year-in other words, three periods of fasting and penance. In addition to the Lent we know (40 days leading up to Easter), monks of the ancient Celtic church also kept a 40-day "Summer's Lent" leading up to the Feast of the Transfiguration (Aug. 6) and a "Winter's Lent" leading up to Christmas. The Celts loved to do everything in threes, so it seems, and thus it only makes sense that Easter would be paired with two other important feasts of the Christian calendar to make three central days of devotion and celebration, each one following a season of austerity and self-denial.

I confess that I like the kinder, gentler Advent that we Christians of the third millennium observe, where the emphasis is on joyful waiting rather than penitent self-denial. Nevertheless, the Celtic perspective seems worth keeping in mind. It reminds us that Christmas and Easter are indissolubly linked. The baby we so joyfully await becomes the sacrificial lamb who takes away the sin of the world. And both of those events are linked to the Transfiguration, to luminous epiphany of Christ on the mountaintop. So Advent is not just a time of joyful anticipation for us with connections to the Celtic tradition. It is a prelude to a mystery.Dec. 9, 2005

Yesterday was the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and the 151st anniversary of the date on which the Immaculate Conception was solemnly defined as a dogma by Pope Pius IX-in 1854. A few years later the First Vatican Council concluded that in making such pronouncements on matters of faith or morals, the pope speaks infallibly.

As a newbie to the world of Catholicism, I must admit in all candor that the history and theology that underpin this feast day is a mystery to me. But it is a mystery that gets at the heart of what it means to be a Catholic. Papal infallibility, the veneration of Mary, Holy Days of Obligation-all come together on this particular day, piercing Advent like a neon light in the fog. Here, look here, this feast day seems to proclaim: This is why this season is so important. We observe Advent to honor Mary, and we venerate Mary, in part, because of her plenitude of grace. The Archangel Gabriel called Mary "full of grace" (Luke 1:48) and anyone who ever prays the rosary repeats that simple appellation dozens of times.

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