There are many saints whose lives were entwined with the holy season of Advent and Christmas. Saint Francis of Assisi, in fact, had a special place in his heart for Christmas and the days leading up to it.
As it reads in Saint of the Day: “Francis, recalling a visit he had made years before to Bethlehem, resolved to create the manger he had seen there. The ideal spot was a cave in nearby Greccio. He would find a baby (we’re not sure if it was a live infant or the carved image of a baby), hay upon which to lay him, an ox and an ass to stand beside the manger. Word went out to the people of the town. At the appointed time, they arrived carrying torches and candles.”
Christmas is one of the most soulful days of the year. You don’t need to be Christian or a follower of Jesus, because the roots of Christmas lie in the natural rhythms of the year, and solstice celebrations are universal. Christmas is a solstice festival with a significant overlay of the story and teachings of Jesus. But his teaching is universal and dovetails beautifully with the spirit of solstice. Jesus offers a vision of utopia, a perfected world. He envisioned a time when we would get over our neuroses, our demonic tendencies, and live in peaceful community.
Our Advent yearning is not for Christ to come: He already has come in history. We long for our world to be saturated with the Gospel, permeated with Christ’s presence, and for our hearts to become more compassionate. His unpredictability then directs us to embrace events that may disrupt our routines.
Some surprises that should astound us: people’s kind efforts to help us, the discovery of options in a situation that seemed dead-ended, a sympathetic friend in a wildly dysfunctional office, a window of time in a packed schedule, a flash of beauty, a check in the mail or a stimulating conversation in an otherwise empty day!
I often find myself drawn to stories of people who are willing to take a huge leap of faith: people like Mary and Joseph.
I can’t begin to imagine the courage it must have taken for Mary to say yes to the angel Gabriel, for Joseph to go along with God’s plan, to leave their home—nine months pregnant, nonetheless—and travel to an unfamiliar town with no accommodations. Just ask my husband, Mark, who wisely kept quiet when I finished preparations for each of our four kids months before their due dates.
No one could ever know why she was spared and her parents, her brothers, and other family members were so brutally and senselessly murdered. Catholics and evangelical Christians, farmers and peasants, each arriving at a precise lifesaving moment, hid her in attics, cellars, chicken coops, and the flue of a country oven. But on December 24, 1942, Fania Paszt’s luck seemed to run out. The Ukrainian peasant who had saved her life understood the risk to his own by continuing to harbor her, and threw her out of his house. This time there was no savior. She wandered the dirt roads of the Polish countryside, freezing cold in her tattered dress.
We must all hope and work to eliminate darkness, especially in many of the great social issues of our time. We wish world hunger could be eliminated. We wish we could stop wasting the earth’s resources on armaments. We wish we could stop killing people from womb to tomb.
But at a certain point, we have to surrender to the fact that the darkness has always been here, and the only real question is how to receive the light and spread the light. That is not capitulation any more than the cross was capitulation. It is real transformation into the absolutely unique character and program of the risen Christ.
Q. What is this holy season all about?
A. Advent, which comes from the Latin word for arrival or coming, is a period of preparation for the birth of our Lord. Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas and is the start of the Christmas season, which lasts through the Baptism of Our Lord.
The first Sunday of Advent also marks the beginning of the liturgical year, the Church’s “New Year’s Day,” at which time we change the cycle of readings we are using at Mass.
Take a look at some of the other questions that center on this holy season.
Q. What holy days of obligation fall during the Advent and Christmas seasons?
A. In the United States, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, is a holy day of obligation. Mary is the patroness of the US under this title. The others are Christmas Day, December 25, and Mary, Mother of God, January 1. In years when January 1 falls on either Saturday or Monday the obligation is lifted.
One of the most recognizable Catholic symbols of the Advent season is the Advent wreath.
The concept of the Advent wreath actually originated in pre-Christian times when people would gather evergreens and light candles to ward off the darkness of winter and serve as a sign of hope that spring would come.
By the 16th century, Catholics in Germany began using the wreath as a sign of Christ’s coming. From there the tradition slowly spread throughout the world as Germans immigrated to various countries.
Christmas was 15 days away. Saint Francis was staying at a hermitage at Fonte Columbo. He had just come from Rome—the last time, for he would die in three years—where the pope had approved his Rule. The brief future would be filled with pain, even the pain of the wounds of Christ.
How to celebrate Christmas? He remembered his visit to the Holy Land, to Bethlehem. Why not? A kind of replica of the manger there. There was a cave in Greccio….