Christmas is coming, and I don’t really know what to do. My neighbors all have their lights up. Wreaths adorn their doors. Christmas tree lots are beginning to thin. It must be wonderful to be prepared. But I am not.
My family has nothing but a humble Advent wreath, with two of its four candles half-burnt, and a tartan-red ribbon wrapped round a single white candle, to remind us of the order of the season we are entering. Time seems to be running out as we count days, one piece of calendrical chocolate at a time. Quietly, subtly, between regular exuberances, we counter secular liturgies by whispering to the children that Santa is really St. Nicholas, who prays all the time for children everywhere, and that Jesus is the one for whom we are waiting.
But we are not prepared for him. God Incarnate, I mean. We have the gift of faith, we have prayed the Church’s prayers in our home, but the poinsettia have not yet arrived. I think about buying them every time I go to the store now, but I hesitate. Yet why should I? What holds me back from buying the family Christmas tree? Some ignorance, some sin, some darkness within me that is not prepared for the light? I am not prepared.
The liturgies of a commercial Christmas have, in a sense, made proper preparation more difficult. We have moved the whole of Christmastide up, and turned Advent into Christmas. It’s as though our culture presumes that Christianity is something that has permanently penetrated the world, but that should never be allowed to preach “repent and believe.” Christmas is permitted, but Advent should not be allowed its penitential character.
Perhaps this is why St. John the Baptist took me by surprise when the Gospel readings turned round towards him this Advent. My pastor preached that “every mountain in our hearts should be ground down by repentance; every valley filled in by the virtue that makes straight the path for the Lord.” Suddenly, something penitential stirred within me: Advent. There are so many mountains and valleys, that sometimes we are left unprepared for what is coming.
Advent should be allowed to work upon us. As early as the fifth century, the Christian was asked to fast three times a week during Advent. It was a way of making straight the path for the Lord, which came not through the poinsettias but through penance, through fasting, through contemplation of the mystery of “God with us.”
Pastoral accommodations with our commercial Christmas often downplay this penitential aspect of Advent. But if one pays attention to the lectionary, one notices that the Church has never ceased to stress that the crucial preparation is penitential. All one notices, liturgically speaking, in the movement from ordinary time to Advent, is repentance and penance. Make straight the path.
Advent disposes the soul to move towards something, or someone, who is coming. If Advent is allowed to work upon us, then we will be prepared to receive the graces of Christmas, and only then can we make an interior pilgrimage that truly prepares us to receive Christ, just as the Blessed Virgin Mary did.
The days are darker and shorter, and somehow I fear illumining Advent in the wrong way. I fear the threat that a commercial Christmas poses, an obstacle to being prepared for the coming of the Lord. Even still, I wonder about buying that Christmas tree. I want one. It is a late invention, to be sure—German, British Victorian, whatever—but I absolutely love it, and so perhaps my hesitancy with the tree and the poinsettias is an intuitive self-restraint, a kind of fasting. Perhaps there is nothing scrooge-like in my penitential view of Advent, which holds me back from buying the tree.
But perhaps there is another way, I tell myself, to remove my hesitancy—a way to think about the Christmas tree as part of Advent’s “Little Lent.”
There is, after all, one “rose” colored candle amidst the three penitential purple ones. The “gaudete” candle of rejoicing in the midst of Advent has always unsettled me, much the way the Christmas tree does. And then a theological insight dawns: What if the Christmas tree in Advent is like the one rose amidst purple penitential thorns?
For the Christian, repentance brings joy, and also rejoicing, for the purification of our humanity has come, and is coming again. Even in the midst of our penitential preparations, God moves before us. He moves us into Advent, He moves us to repentance, and then, as if God cannot wait to bring us to Himself, the Rose-Colored Sunday we call “Gaudete” intrudes.
Advent is time set apart from Christmas, given to prepare us for something that the prophets foretold. But in the midst of our unpreparedness, even as we repent of our sins, the Church bears witness to that heavenly order of rejoicing in that Light which illumines every light: God is coming into the world, to make holy all the world in “the economy of the flesh,” as St. Cyril has it.
The rose candle, it dawns upon me, is the great “light” of Advent—better even than the Christmas tree—for it shows us that the deepest reality, the really fundamental truth, is that God does not disdain the confines of the manger, nor the frailty and weakness of our flesh. Rather, the rose candle, like the Christmas tree, proclaims with G.K. Chesterton that in the fullness of time, marked by so much sin and ignorance, “joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live.”
You can have your Christmas tree during Advent. Make it as beautiful and as uproariously joyful as you can, especially for Gaudete Sunday. But bear in mind that if your Advent is all rose and no purple, you’ll be unprepared for the grace of Christmas.
C. C. Pecknold is Associate Professor of Theology at The Catholic University of America.