Killjoy? A reflection on Advent

Any consideration of the season of Advent should acknowledge the fact that its origins were penitential. Especially in the East, when Epiphany, where the Baptism of Christ is one of the “three wonders” that mark this holy day, was another time when baptisms were celebrated, a penitential season parallel to Lent before Easter would be a most appropriate time for preparing those to be baptized. To this day, Orthodox Christians have been observing the Nativity Fast from mid-November, and its vestiges outside the East are still seen in Milan’s six-week Advent.

Its penitential origins are still seen in the fact that the Gloria in Excelsis is not sung during Advent (and its use in the Simbanggabi an exception which I would personally regret, for reasons I will state) and that violet, a traditionally penitential color, is used during this time. There is also the practice, at least among some Anglicans, of having the (Cranmerian) Great Litany sung in procession on Advent Sunday, and the Litany in its traditional form has penitential overtones.

Of course, the notion of this being a penitential time is no longer meaningful for most of us. In fact, I would suggest that such a position would turn Advent into the ultimate “killjoy” season, at least as some people perceive it. The reality is that the Advent season clashes with the anticipatory secular celebration of Christmas even before the liturgical year is over, a celebration that cannot trace its origins earlier than this century. Some rigorists would exclude having Christmas songs on the church menu anytime earlier than Christmas eve, and ideally, this would be the case in churches outside the Philippines. (The Simbanggabi is again an exception here, as far as I know.)

This is why the Church (and by this I mean the Roman Church in the West and those who follow it at least on this matter) emphasizes the notion of Advent being a joyful anticipation and a time of waiting. It urges us to take penitence as one aspect of this waiting for the coming that occurs, not just in the beginning or at the end, but in every occasion. But it asks us to be sober, as Paul’s letter to the Romans puts it. Advent is ultimately counter-cultural, because we are asked to reconsider, especially now, what our own culture teaches us about the celebration of Christmas, and how it has been corrupted (willingly) by the blatant commercialization of the season.

Why do I say “especially now”? There is a sense in which everyone around the world is being called to change their lifestyles, thanks to this crisis that shows up the faults in our free market system. I hear stories of cutbacks in Christmas celebrations in some places because people and companies could no longer afford to do it. And the search for bargains in an economy where gift-giving—and the buying of gifts—is considered a good unto itself has led to one tragic death. The economy of exchange has distorted what should be an economy of the gift. The latter is precisely what Advent anticipates: the mystery, as Jean-Luc Marion and the Radical Orthodox love to celebrate in their writings, of something “given” before we ask.

Part of this reconsideration, I think, lies in reforming certain aspects of the pre-Christmas culture in our country. While the Simbanggabi in the Roman Catholic rite takes on the character of an anticipatory Christmas celebration, with the use of the Gloria and white vestments, I think we should look at how the Episcopal Church decided, while adopting this most Filipino of customs, to keep the Advent mood. My suggestions would be twofold:

1. We should expand the repertory of Advent songs in Filipino, and encourage more Advent songs in English, even the revival of some of the great Advent hymns of the Western tradition both past and present. A good place to begin writing new Advent songs in our language is to adapt texts from the tradition, like “Veni, redemptor gentium” and perhaps that great Advent hymn by John Wesley, “Lo! he comes with clouds descending.” Original material that speaks of anticipation and penitence should be composed as well. I am not up to the task, but I am sure others will take up that challenge.

2. Such hymns would find a place in a reform-of-the-reform Simbanggabi. I would prefer that the Gloria in Excelsis be suppressed, or at least a setting that speaks of a sober mood be used. I would also suggest that the use of rose-colored vestments become customary during this time. I advance two reasons: first, rose is an Advent color and the nine days commonly start after the Third Sunday of Advent when this color is used, and second, it is associated with the Virgin Mary, for the masses of the novena are, as far as I know, considered votive Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Roman rite.

I propose reviving the time-honored idea of making the twelve days of Christmas the focus of our celebration of the Incarnation, something which can be helped by a move done this year in our country to declare seven of them a holiday—except for those in the banking system. But I would also ask whether, indeed, it is time for some sobriety even in that. Which will be a topic for a future essay.

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