The second cleaning session was on the first Sunday of Advent, and I returned to the church after Mass with some old toothbrushes to clean the candle wax off St. Joseph’s plinth and toes. I credit St. Joseph with finding me a husband, so I rather enjoyed puttering around his statue, scraping away. (The toothbrushes didn’t work. It turns out nothing gets wax off wood like the human thumbnail.)
I was on my best behaviour because there is some tension between the ordinary parishioners and the Latin Mass people who occupy their church and hall for two hours every Sunday. It’s silly that it is so, but alas, it is so. And if there can be doubt and mistrust between Catholics who go to the morning Mass (Ordinary Form) and those who go to the noon Mass (Extraordinary Form), what hope is there for peace in the rest of the world?
Saddened by the Islamist attacks in France, Lebanon and Kenya in early November, Pope Francis opined that Christmas would be a “charade” this year. And I must admit the sight of shoppers crowding into Edinburgh’s beautifully decorated shops makes me feel rather cynical. The “holiday season” has begun, which means four weeks of parties, shopping, sugary treats and booze, reaching a crescendo on Christmas Day, after which battered trees will be thrown on the curb and normal life will resume until Scotland’s High Holiday, Hogmanay (New Year). For most Scots Christmas ends Christmas Day; they would be shocked to know that their Polish neighbours consider Boxing Day a “Second Christmas” and a Holy Day of Obligation. In Scotland, as in other English-speaking countries, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is just an old song.
Traditionally the 12 days of Christmas are our party season. (The season of Christmas lasts until Feb. 2.) The four weeks preceding Christmas are actually Advent, a penitential season of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. The Orthodox Churches and Eastern-rite Catholics have already begun their “Little Lent” which includes a tradition called “the Nativity Fast.” During the Nativity Fast, our Eastern-rite brothers and sisters basically become vegans on weekdays, and even the consumption of oil and wine is restricted. This means that when Christmas Day comes at last, Eastern-rite Christians feast with a gustatory joy hard for us to imagine after four weeks of eggnog, shortbread, panettone, etc.
But observation of Advent does more than sharpen our appetite for the feast. Advent acknowledges and mourns the reality of a world covered in darkness, a world of mistrust, hatred, violence. At the darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere, Advent gives us an opportunity to do something about the metaphorical darkness: to pray for the end of sin, to fast in reparation for sin, to give alms to those who have suffered from sin. If there is nothing else we can do to counter the horrors that so saddened Pope Francis, we can certainly do that.
Christmas is the light of hope at the end of the Advent tunnel, just as Christ is the light of hope at the end of the tunnel of history. Despite our signs of mourning — the purple vestments, the purple candles, any voluntary fasting, almsgiving and intensified prayer — we feel excitement because we know Christmas is coming. Despite the horrors of war, we feel joy because we know Christ has come and will come again. We live in the “already” and the “not yet.” But I think it important always to remember, especially during Advent and Lent, the “not yet” part of the equation. If we don’t, our celebrations cease to look like honest feasts and more like debauchery and a flaunting of our wealth and security in the face of a suffering world
As for the campaign to keep “Christ in Christmas,” I agree with the sentiment, but only to a point. As Christmas does not begin until the evening of Dec. 24, it seems silly to be rude to neighbours when they wish us “Happy holidays” before that date. As a matter of fact, there are usually a number of important holy days — saints’ days — breaking up our Advent, which is why the Latin Church does not fast as assiduously as our Byzantine brethren. Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with us answering a well-meant “Happy holidays” with a cheerful, humble “Thank you!”
(Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer and author of Ceremony of Innocence.)