Happy New (Liturgical) Year! Advent is the beginning of the new liturgical year in our Church, a change in season as we await the birth of our Lord. Today we light the first candle of the Advent Wreath; a tiny flame that begins to light up the winter darkness—in a time when light is so welcome... The Sundays of Advent all have distinctive themes according to the Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass. This First Sunday of Advent is about the Lord’s coming at the end of time and being prepared for His arrival⎯which may also be a paradigm for being prepared for the birth of Christ at the end of Advent. We are told in the Gospel of St. Mark today to “Be watchful! Be alert!” We are called to be ready for God’s kingdom to break into this world; we wait in joy and hope for His coming at Christmas and at the end of time.
Right now, everyone is so busy, and will be busier as Christmas approaches: shopping (maybe on line), card-writing, parties (only on Zoom, please!), cooking, baking and decorating their homes inside and out. I usually do not turn on my Christmas lights until the last few days just before Christmas, but they are up earlier this year than ever before—pushing that line between waiting for Christmas by living in the spirit of Advent. Although this year, I think the “line” between the two seasons is particularly difficult to manage. I know that we all need extra “cheer” as we live through this pandemic, the restrictions, post-election, you-name-it. The challenge for us Christians is that in understandably pushing Christmas to be “early,” we should reflect on Jesus’ birth and second coming—and not be sooo busy that we miss the point of the reason for this Advent season.
I understand that we need/want to prepare for Christmas early because our spirits have been languishing with all of the necessary covid restrictions, but we should try to wait and not be drawn entirely into the secular world of Christmas now. That is surely a challenge right now—because like the song says: “We need a little Christmas…” An example of waiting for Christmas could be like the bride who waits for her wedding, preparing and expectant, enjoying the details and plans, the decorations and “future” gifts—but not opening them or showing off her dress ahead of time—saving something for the actual wedding. We need to find the line between the now of Advent and the future joy of Christmas.
We are challenged by circumstance to try to wait for the actual arrival of Christmas, then look forward to celebrating outwardly the whole season of Christmas. I know we all need a little Christmas early this year, but I have to say I really dislike (pet-peeve) that there is 24-7 Christmas music being played on the radio even before Halloween! We need to be able to wait for something. Of course the music played on the radio early is always the commercial and secular stuff (Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer…). I wouldn’t mind as much hearing the great Christian Christmas carols by an orchestra and chorus that actually celebrate the sacred. I do confess that I watch Christmas movies (the oldies and goodies, mostly) during Thanksgiving weekend while I write my Christmas cards.
Today the Responsorial Psalm for this First Sunday of Advent is a petition to God to take tender care of us: “Lord make us turn to you and we shall be saved.” We also need to take tender care of each other. In this time of covid as the darkness of winter and circumstance spreads, the line we find is about turning to God now and always, early or later… And so we turn to Him, we await Him with hope and joy, we find time between Advent and Christmas is to prepare for His coming, and to wait in certainty for His arrival. Advent is the opportunity to seek that line of waiting and arrival, to try to listen carefully, to turn to God while preparing in joy for the “next.. St. Paul today reminds us that we will have everything we need (every spiritual gift) while we wait and prepare. That is a good thing to remember, a comfort for the next time we feel the frenetic need to have Christmas now. We are waiting, alert and awake as we watch and prepare for you, O God.
Keep singing in your hearts!
Just a Note: This is an album I love to listen to in preparation for Christmas—yes, an actual album played on a record player… I grew up listening to The Music of Christmas," by The Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Carmen Dragon. (Youtube) If you are looking for some early Christmas—I recommend this!
The last time I wrote an article for “Sing Praise” for Christ the King, Cycle A (3 years ago), I wrote about sheep and goats. Why? Because the First Reading from the Book of Ezekiel, the Responsorial Psalm (#23) and the Gospel from Matthew today all speak of sheep—but Jesus in the Gospel also talks about goats. I googled about these animals and the differences between them—I am an urban girl after all, not country-bred—and found out why Jesus used these animals as his examples of the faithful versus the unfaithful.
Although goats and sheep may look somewhat similar there are some pretty stark differences between the two species; they have distinct and separate traits. Goats are often pushy and can cause undercurrents and dissension as turmoil and agitation are part of their nature. The goat has a dominating and controlling temperament, rather than a passive and submissive one. Goats tend to be more self-sufficient than sheep, choosing to browse rather than graze in the pasture. They can be loners, not tending to “Community.” A goat’s natural curiosity and independence means they can tend to get into more trouble than sheep (because sheep are, yes, sheepish).
Sheep have a very strong flocking instinct and they become very agitated when separated from their flock and their shepherd. Lately I have heard the term “sheeple” used as a derogatory phrase applied to persons who “follow” instead of using “independent thinking.” The idea that what a community may call us to and that we follow “passively,” is somehow “bad.” This is an “American” ideal: “following” is somehow weak; you are an unthinking “cog” in a machine. But there is a reason that Jesus uses these animals as metaphors for those who follow His Gospel and those who don’t. And although there are similarities between sheep and goats, the differences are so great that Jesus said the goats would not inherit the Kingdom of God. While the sheep are considered God’s children, the goats are not; and though sheep and goats can remain in the same fold, when Jesus returns He will separate the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be on God’s right side (the good side), the goats on his left.
We humans (Americans and Christians) easily forget that in reality we are not really independent—we rely on God for all things. Ezekiel today talks about how God shepherds and tends us—His flock. When we are lost, He seeks us out. We are fed and pastured, healed and rescued by Him. This is a wonderful image of love for us by God. God will care for us, shepherding us rightly, so why do we resist?
I believe that we resist because we are confused in our culture into believing that any dependence is weakness. We forget that we are “interdependent” and that our choices have an effect on all of us. We forget that we have social constructs we do abide by—contracts spoken and unspoken—that should guide us all in our behavior toward God and each other, toward creation and stewardship. Deciding to follow social constructs is not a weakness; it is a choice for Gospel living, for caring for the “other.” “The last shall be first…” scripture says; and we are called to serve and to give. This pandemic has highlighted the idea that we are called to be at peace with all the inconveniences that are aimed at protecting the vulnerable and marginalized. In the Gospel today Jesus links the nature of these two animals to our behaviors: those who are concerned with Community and the state of its members are called sheep—the others who forget their Christian obligations and act in selfishness and greed are the goats. If sharing and caring makes me a “sheeple” I am good with that.
As we end the liturgical year today and begin a new year we are also getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving Day—an opportune juxtaposition of sacred and “secular” celebrations! If you think about it, Thanksgiving is not just a holiday but is a holy way of life. Thanksgiving in all and everything may protect us from greed and selfishness, may tenderize our hard hearts and renew our minds in Christ. A grateful heart understands that the source of our spiritual and emotional riches depends on God—and that is not weakness. I am grateful that this virus has shined a light on our “goatness.” It has given us the opportunity to be more understanding and compassionate, to evince the outpouring of Christ’s love and generosity to all others in our Communities (no exceptions!). We need to open our eyes to the generosity of all God’s gifts and blessings for us—which we are called as His children to share. So, how about you? Do you baa or bleat? It’s your choice…
Keep singing in your hearts!
Just a Note: We need to see with God’s eyes in this world—so here is a hymn we have often sung together at St. Aidan.
Be Thou My Vision: https://youtu.be/Rq9Yh17Jn3I
David J. Conrad, M.A. Theology. Our Director of Faith Formation.