This evening my I attended the vigil Mass at my church-and thus began my first Advent as a Catholic. This time last year, I was merely studying the Catholic faith, having not yet made the commitment to enter the church. Two years ago, I had no Christian affiliation at all- but rather considered myself to be a modern Pagan.
Advent has no real equivalent in modern Paganism (at least, not to my knowledge). For today's Pagans, the "reason for the season" is the Winter Solstice, not Christmas; but the weeks leading up to the solstice have no particular meaning. Therefore, Pagans who continue to celebrate Christmas (or who adorn their Solstice celebrations with the trappings of Christmas, all of which originally began as Pagan folk practices anyway) have no real incentive to resist the consumerist frenzy that marks the month following Thanksgiving.
Advent is subversive: it subverts the breakneck pace of our instant-gratification, gotta-have-it-now society. The closest many people come to the power of Advent is making sure the kids don't open any presents under the tree before the morning of the 25th. "Wait until Christmas." That's not too far from the real message of Advent: wait. Be patient. Find meaning and joy in the "not-yet" times of life.
Many Pagans are counterculturalists, and therefore reject the commercialism of December as yet another symptom of a sick society. But ceremonially speaking, Paganism offers no real alternative to the shop-till-you-drop ethos of mainstream culture. So for me, re-connecting with Advent means tapping in to a powerful, and positive, way of replacing the holiday hustle with a more truly contemplative embrace of the month prior to Christmas.
The chance to observe Advent did not figure in my decision to enter the church. But now that I am Catholic, I'm finding Advent to be one of the many unsung treasures of my faith. I'm not unfamiliar with the season, for I was an Episcopalian for nearly a decade in my early adult life. But the last time I would have paid this season any attention was sometime in the mid-1990s. So now, Advent feels like a homecoming- a reunion with something special that I had almost lost during my sojourn as a Pagan.
So what is that "something special"? It's more than just four Sundays when the church is decked out in purple and we sing "O Come O Come Emmanuel" practically every week. It's more than just a lovely wreath with three purple and one rose-colored candles. Like every other treasure of Christianity, the symbolism of Advent tells us little about its deep inner meaning. Advent is a time of honoring the pregnancy of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In honoring her pregnancy, we are reminded of that most subversive of spiritual qualities: patience. Advent is about waiting. Waiting for the birth, waiting for the fullness of time when the mystery will be revealed. It's not just about a birth in a Bethlehem manger that in any case has already happened long ago. Rather, Advent makes the pregnancy and the waiting real, here and now. We are all like Mary, pregnant with the Christ child in our own hearts, minds, and souls. We are all waiting; waiting for his second coming, whether you see that as some sort of dramatic denouement in history or as a more humble yet powerful transformation that occurs inside a person, one individual at a time.
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.