December seasonal notes
Advent and Christmas
Notes, important dates, and other material for December.
Notes for Cycle A
AT THIS TIME EVERY YEAR, it’s OK to become like a little child again. Decorations, colored lights, carols, and holiday anticipation set the mood for a walk down memory lane. But as believers, our focus is not just on Christmas past but also Christ in the future: that elusive day of Second Coming that is always on its way. This Advent we have the usual cast of characters to remind us which direction we are facing. Isaiah is with us, promising hope, justice, peace, and wonder even in the desert of present conditions.
John the Baptist is back, wielding eschatological weapons of mass destruction in anticipation of a new world order. But in Cycle A, the real hero of the season is Joseph, dreaming his way into a future that his upbringing in the sobriety of the law never prepared him for. Isaiah’s vision is cosmic, and John’s charismatic preaching is larger than life. Joseph is more like us: a fellow drawn to scale, humble in his goals, and normal in his perceptions. He never expected to be drafted into the story of salvation. That’s what makes him perfect for it.
MATTHEW'S YEAR year is a season of old promises being exchanged for their wondrous and often startling fulfillment. If Luke centers salvation history on the incarnation of Jesus and John on the hour of glory manifest at the cross, then we might say Matthew sees each daily fulfillment of the old prophecies as a new episode of God’s saving plan.
The readings for Advent illustrate how Matthew views religious reality. The Prince of Peace and Justice has long been announced. Those who live wakefully will recognize him. He has a forerunner in John the Baptist.
But the real “voice in the wilderness” that prepares the way of the Lord is Isaiah, if not the prophetic tradition as a whole. Jesus should be a surprise to no one among the people of God, in Matthew’s opinion. He has been foretold, prepared for, and his arrival precisely announced for centuries. Signs and wonders have all been preestablished and rubberstamp the passport of the One who fulfills them. Prepare to receive him!
Notes for Cycle B
ADVENT ORIGINALLY had a penitential character and was marked by long fasts, in keeping with her sister season of Lent. We see vestiges of that intent in the purple color used during both seasons, as well as the apocalyptic tone of some of the readings. Even while we “wait in joyful hope,” we sense the anxiety of time about to give birth to eternity. And as we wait for the time to be fulfilled, a parade of significant figures passes before our eyes: John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph. All of these are necessary for the one who is to come, Jesus, to make his appearance. Though it may seem that the world waited forever, it did not wait in vain. At the end of the secular year, as we await the new year with hopes and resolutions mounting, we bind ourselves together across the generations and vow to care for one another as a holy family of Christ must do.
IT WOULD BE HARD to identify a year in which we didn’t need Christmas to round out the events of another 12 months of living. Some years are sadder than others, with more loss, suffering, and violence to incorporate. But even in a year that may have been routine for some, good news is always gratefully received. And for any who are in need of a fresh start, new life is on its way. Each December, the consolations of Isaiah are something to look forward to in a world of regular disappointments. John the Baptist’s call to reform our lives is never untimely. The idea that justice and peace still have a chance to succeed in our midst may seem unbelievable—but if you put your faith in Jesus, believe it.
Christians do not simply await the new year in December; what we await is a new heaven and a new earth. In the beginning, we are told, the world was made good. In the new beginning, the world to come will be perfect.
Notes for Cycle C
ADVENT AND CHRISTMAS are at the forefront of the liturgical year in more ways than one. No other season carries the intense secular dimension of these, which threatens to obscure the sacred meaning of this time. And yet no other aspect of the Christian story (not even Easter!) holds the same place in the hearts and religious imagination of believers and nonbelievers alike. The high emotional color of this season makes it a unique opportunity for evangelization, when long-absent Catholics come home to their families and often to the pews. It’s critical for the preacher to weigh each word at this time: Am I delivering a message of warmth and welcome, or shutting the gate with prohibitions and condemnation? Will the long-time-no-see crowd be tempted to stay awhile as a result of their experience here, or will the message confirm their reasons for drifting away in the first place?
ONCE MORE WE ENTER the season of waiting in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ. Advent begins soberly with a reminder that the season of hope is predicated by a fateful day of division: Some will anticipate his arrival with dread and others with unrivaled joy. Yet John reminds us that it is God, not us, who takes up the task of making the way of salvation smooth for those who would travel it. God provides this service not to absolve us of responsibility, however: Clearly there are things we can do to prepare for the reception of the one we are waiting for. We must work for justice, yearn for it and seek it and sweat for it.
Because this is precisely what the “day of the Lord” is: the arrival of the time of justice. If we live in habits that actively obstruct the justice of God, then we will be sorry to see this day come. Along with justice comes peace, as a natural fruit. Peace cannot arrive first, and the Prince of Peace reigns only when justice is established.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
The 12 days of Christmas begin on December 26 and last through the celebration of the Epiphany of the Lord. Many countries, especially in Europe and South America, wait until the 12th day of Christmas to give gifts. Another traditional custom is to give a gift on each of the 12 days.
Life is a constant Advent season: We are continually waiting to become, to discover, to complete, to fulfill. Hope, struggle, fear, expectation, and fulfillment are all part of our Advent experience.
The world is not as just, not as loving, not as whole as we know it can and should be. But the coming of Christ and his presence among us—as one of us—give us reason to live in hope: that light will shatter the darkness, that we can be liberated from our fears and prejudices, that we are never alone or abandoned.
May this Advent season be a time for bringing hope, transformation, and fulfillment into the Advent of our lives.
—Connections, November 28, 1993
In the liturgical year the aspects of the one paschal mystery unfold. This is also the case with the cycle of feasts surrounding the mystery of the Incarnation (Annunciation, Christmas, Epiphany). They commemorate the beginning of our salvation and communicate to us the first fruits of the paschal mystery.
—Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1171)
It is no use saying that we are born 2,000 years too late to give room to Christ. . . . Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts. . . . And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ.
The O Antiphons
During the days before Christmas, the seven “O Antiphons” are prayed before the Magnificat in Evening Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours. The O Antiphons, which date from the eighth century, are based on scripture and each includes a title for the Messiah.
• December 17: O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care: Come and show your people the way of salvation.
• December 18: O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: Come, stretch out your right hand to set us free.
• December 19: O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you: Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.
• December 20: O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into heaven.
• December 21: O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
• December 22: O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart; O Keystone of the mighty arch of humanity: Come and save the creatures you fashioned from the dust.
• December 23: O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.
The period of the O Antiphons is a kind of Advent-within-Advent, a time of special preparation for Christmas within a season of preparation. These days provide an especially attractive opportunity for parish, small group, or personal celebrations of Evening Prayer.
On the shoulders of giants
Before we end the year, let us remember four priests born more than 100 years ago: Karl Rahner, S.J. (March 5); Yves Congar, O.P. (April 13); Reynold Hillenbrand (July 19); and John Courtney Murray, S.J. (September 12). Like the theologian Congar, both Jesuits made major contributions to the Second Vatican Council, in the areas of theology and religious freedom. Perhaps most important for those in parish ministry, however, is the Chicago priest Reynold Hillenbrand, who was passionate about liturgical life, parish preaching, and organizing. As a pastor, he helped create space for laity to come together around family issues, concerns of working life, and what today we might call “adult faith formation.” Along the way, he was a great mentor to other priests and brought a sense of vision for what the church is and can be for ordinary people.
“We live in between the first coming of Jesus Christ and his second coming, and most of us feel a lot better about the first one.”
—Theologian Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.
“For this is the message of Advent; faced with him who is the Last, the world will begin to shake. Only when we do not cling to false securities will our eyes be able to see this Last One and get to the bottom of things. Only then we will be able to guard our life from the frights and terrors into which God the Lord has let the world sink to teach us, so that we may awaken from sleep, as Paul says, and see that it is time to repent, time to change things.”
—Alfred Delp, S.J. (1907-1945)
Advent sunday readings
As the lectionary says, each of the Sunday gospel readings have a distinctive theme: Christ’s coming at the end of time on the First Sunday of Advent; John the Baptist on the Second and Third Sundays; and the events that immediately precede Jesus’ birth on the Fourth Sunday. The readings from Hebrew scripture deal with prophecies about the messiah and the messianic age, especially from the Book of Isaiah. The epistle readings contain exhortations and proclamations in keeping with the themes of Advent.
Death of Thomas Merton, 1968 A Trappist monk at Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, Thomas Merton’s writings include such classics as The Seven Storey Mountain, which remains in print after more than 50 years, and New Seeds of Contemplation. Merton wrote more than 70 books, including poetry, personal journals, collected letters, social criticism, and writings on peace, social justice, and ecumenism.
International Human Rights Day marks the anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. To read about this day, check www.un.org.
Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe Both the words Our Lady of Guadalupe used when she appeared and the imagery of the tilma spoke to the Indians. Every detail of the image had significance for them. Our Lady wore turquoise, the color of divinity. She hid, but did not destroy their greatest sign of divinity, the sun. One could see the sunshine but not the sun itself. She stood upon the moon goddess, showing that she is greater than the moon.
But she herself is not a god because she doesn’t wear a mask. The Virgin has an open face and eyes that see. Therefore she seemed like the Indians at the same time that she appeared to be a deity.
She spoke words of great tenderness to Juan Diego. No threats were made such as those heard in later Marian apparitions. Here she simply told Juan Diego, “I want to be your mother. I want to be the mother of all the inhabitants of this land. I want to protect you. I want to right the wrongs.” They were words of endearment.
—Excerpted with permission from “La Virgen es del pueblo” (“Guadalupe walks with the people”), an interview with Father Virgil Elizondo by Carol Schuck-Scheiber, published by Claretian Publications.