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.
BY: Carl McColman
Nov. 30 marked not only the first Wednesday of Advent, but also the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle. For an old druid like myself who now, as a Catholic convert, feels such a strong kinship with the Celtic church, it's a day worth remembering; for Andrew is the patron saint of the Celtic land of Scotland. According to legend, a ninth-century Scottish king saw a St. Andrew's cross (that is, a cross shaped like an "X") formed by clouds in the sky above a battle in which the Scots fought against Angles and Saxons. The Scots were victorious, so the apostle soon came to be regarded as their patron saint. Indeed, to this day Scotland's flag features a white St. Andrew's cross against a blue background.
The irony, of course, is that Andrew was not a Scotsman at all. He was one of Jesus' disciples; indeed, according to the Gospel of John, he was not only one of the first disciples, but also the first evangelist, telling his brother (Peter) that Jesus was the Messiah. In other words, Andrew never set foot in Celtic lands. This is not to say that Scotland lacks her own saints; indeed, some--like the Irish-born St. Columcille, who brought Christianity to Scotland, or St. Mungo, the founder of Glasgow--could well serve as the country's patron instead. Columcille called Jesus his "arch-druid"--implying that Jesus was his teacher, his mentor, and of course, his Lord. I can't think of a more fitting way for a Celtic Christian to honor Christ.
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.