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.
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.
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.
So does Mary actually function as a conduit of divine grace? That's a controversial question-even among Catholics. Christ brought grace into the world with abundance and overabundance through his birth on that first Christmas so long ago. Advent dares us to consider that maybe that grace was already in evidence, even before Christ's birth-thanks to Mary's surfeit of it. Surely some of the blessings showered upon the Mother of God in her freedom from original sin spilled over to bless all of creation!
I observed my Eucharistic obligation for the holy day by attending Mass at a Trappist monastery located about 20 miles from my home. One of the monks was making his solemn profession, lying prostrate before his abbot, making his promises, and then receiving his monastic cowl, or robe. With incense wafting through the large church and Gregorian chant-in Latin, no less-creating a sense of aural serenity, the 90 minutes of the Mass seemed to melt away into something far more timeless and eternal. Oblivious to the narcissism that dominates our world, the monks kept the focus in today's liturgy on Mary rather than on their newest member. Marveling at the austere beauty of their worship, I speculated on the theological notion that, since we are all members of the Christ's mystical body, Mary today gave birth yet again-to this newly minted monk.
It is said that Advent is not just about the anticipation of the Messiah as a historical event, but also about how we in today's world should anticipate the future coming of the reign of God. As the Queen of Heaven, Mary will "give birth" again, so it seems, with the coming of Christ at the end of time. But every time a new monk professes his vows-or, for that matter, a new baby is born-it seems to me that the Blessed Mother gives birth yet again, here and now. The first-century peasant girl and the cosmic Queen of Heaven are united here and now, whenever the feminine face of the Divine-the source of new life-is made manifest in our world.
And so with quiet chanting, the monks praised her for that unending miracle.
The short season of Advent has moved well into its second half. The change was marked on the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, when the priest exchanged his vestments of penitential purple for lighter-hearted pink. The Latin word "Gaudete" means "rejoice," and the priest at our Mass got everyone laughing with his self-deprecatory comments about how he thought he looked dressed up in pink. Still, I think the tone of these last two weeks is not so much one of levity as of quiet hope. It's still Advent-it's still a time of waiting, of fasting, of contemplation. It's just a reminder not to use this introspective time merely to berate ourselves for our sins and failings, but rather to count our blessings as well.
I have much to keep me pensive these days. Last week I celebrated my 45th birthday, and then on Dec. 14-the feast of St. John of the Cross, one of my favorite Catholic authors-my parents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Normally these would be quite the milestones for rejoicing, but the celebrations had a bittersweet feel, for Mom had a stroke this past summer and subsequently was diagnosed with vascular dementia. These autumn months have been, not surprisingly, a chaotic time. My parents sold their condo and moved into a retirement community (my mother into assisted living). Talking to them on their anniversary, I could all too easily hear the stoic sadness in Dad's voice, and the deep tiredness in Mom's.
Still, even with Mom's challenges, they had plans to celebrate, my brothers taking them out to eat at their favorite seafood restaurant. I'm the youngest son, the family oddball (and the lone vegetarian among a carnivorous bunch), and I live 500 miles away. Hearing the now all-too-familiar listlessness in my Mom's voice, the miles felt so much more. I'm glad I'll be seeing them soon (I'm visiting them the day after Christmas).
Stroke survivors and people with dementia can live well for many years, so it is premature for me to speak of my mother's impending death. And yet, her sudden transition from independence to frailty has shaken that confidence that I've known since childhood: the comforting illusion that moms and dads will "always" be there. Now I sense that for her, the concept of waiting has a far different, more terrible tonality than the pleasure I'm taking in my new religion's rituals.
I can rejoice even in my mother's frailty. I can rejoice even though I have a sense of being neither fish nor fowl-not yet Catholic enough to feel unselfconsciously at home within the church, and yet keenly aware of how drastically-and irreversibly-my relationship with Paganism has changed. If I could personify my relationship with the Pagan community, right now I'd say it feels as though we're newly separated ex-lovers, very much at the stage where we're not sure how intimate we can be as "just friends."
But when I send an e-mail to a Pagan friend, I still sign it "Happy Solstice." Am I being inauthentic? Hardly. I may no longer be a Pagan myself-but I can still feel the wonder in the air as the longest night of the year. And then again, even during the years I practiced Paganism, I'd always greeted my Lutheran parents with "Merry Christmas." Waiting, with rejoicing. Even in the face of loss, of relationships ruptured, of deep uncertainty about the future. All this feels like what I suspect Advent is supposed to be.
Yesterday was the winter solstice. During my sojourn in the Pagan community, this day that marks the return of the sun was my Yule--Dec. 21, not Dec. 25. I attended numerous solstice rituals, including one crazy cold night in the mountains of Tennessee that involved skinny-dipping and getting caught in a winter rainstorm!
Compared to those hijinks, my behavior this Dec. 21 seemed almost mundane, although hardly mainstream. I attended the morning Mass at the monastery near where I live. In the chilly church where most of the laypeople present huddled in their jackets the light seeped through the colorful stained-glass windows only gradually as the unaccompanied chanting of the monks rose and fell in rhythms that seemed centuries old, even though some of the music was entirely post-Vatican II. No mention was made, however, of the fact that this was the solstice. To these monastics steeped in their 16 centuries of liturgical tradition, this first day of winter received nary a nod of acknowledgment. Only in the reading from the Hebrew Bible could I detect some sense of connection to a season--but it seemed to be the wrong season. The reading came from the Song of Songs:
My lover speaks; he says to me, "Arise my beloved, my beautiful one, and come! For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of pruning the vines has come, and the song of the dove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance. Arise my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!It's a passage so passionately rich with nature imagery that any Pagan could love it (indeed, some Neopagan scholars insist that the Song of Songs originated as poems of sacred love for the Goddess). But I couldn't get past the irony of a passage announcing the end of winter, read on the first day of winter (or, in the eyes of many Pagans, the mid-point of winter). It felt, well, out of synch. It seems to me this reading would have be more appropriate for Candlemas on February 2, which corresponds to the pagan festival of Imbolc, marking the beginning of spring. Still, I appreciated having at least some sense of acknowledging the wonder of nature on a day I once held as sacred.
I suppose it's rather ironic how, at the close of my first Advent as a Catholic, I sit here nitpicking away at the short shrift my new faith has given to the turning of the season. It's easy to say "I used to be a pagan," or "Now I'm a Catholic" as though they were immovable realities, etched in stone. But conversion is not a neat and tidy process. I returned to Christianity because I wanted a faith centered on Christ, and specifically I chose the Catholic faith because (ironically) my exploration of Irish paganism led me to saints like Brigid and Columcille, who in turn led me to the church I now call home. I've had no second thoughts about becoming a Catholic. But I want a green Catholicism, where there is a deeper passion for the earth and the wilderness and the elements and the dance of the seasons than what I've found in my first year in the church. Writers like Thomas Berry and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin give me hope that such a green faith does in fact exist.
Christian liturgy is far more concerned with the Birth of the Son than the Return of the Sun. But as I prepare for the joy and the warmth that the impending holiday of Christmas promises me, I can't help but feel a little sad. I'm reminded just how large a gulf yawns between "the Christians and the Pagans." Folk singer-songwriter Dar Williams wrote a wonderful and playful song by that name a few years back about a couple of Wiccans who show up unnanounced at their Christian relatives' home on Christmas Eve:
"And you find magic from your god
And we find magic everywhere."
It's a charming and hopeful song, and every time I hear it, it makes me cry. But my tears are just as much tears of hope as they are tears of sadness for the present reality of how alienated from one another so many Christians and Neopagans seem to be. The chill of a winter's morn is an apt metaphor for the coldness that so many Neopagans and Christian feel for each other's faith. Sure, there are those who try to find creative ways to blend or integrate the two traditions, but they seem to be a curious minority in both camps.
As this Advent draws to a close and I prepare for the festivities that will mark Christmas, I am reminded that some of the "waitings" in our lives are less predictable than others. Christmas is a wonderful holiday--but it's safe and orderly. Jesus is reliably born, again and again, every year on December 25. Liturgically speaking, it is a comforting reality. But Advent is not just about the past; it's also about the future. For most Christians, that means we wait for the return of Christ. But in the meantime, we also wait for peace on earth, for a world where children and women are safe, for a world where Christians and Pagans can get along. Those "advents" will not go away, even when the colors change in church.