Have Yourself a Counter-Cultural Advent

Here we are once again, beginning my favorite season of the year: Advent.

I’ve decided that Advent is the most counter-cultural season we celebrate.  I’m not only referring to the fact that the world seems to celebrate Christmas as soon as it possibly can. Although this is true, I’m referring to the philosophy behind Advent.  The world doesn’t like to wait. And it certainly doesn’t like to delay answering its own desires.

Lent is a little counter-cultural, but not as much as Advent.  In Lent, we embrace penance and almsgiving, which our culture understands to a certain degree. Its approach to sacrifice tends to be more utilitarian—working towards a goal of losing weight, training for a marathon, or freeing oneself from an addiction—but there is still at least some understanding of the emphasis of the season.

Outwardly, it’s pretty clear that our world doesn’t understand Advent.  But celebrating Christmas the day of Thanksgiving—or the day after Halloween—is just indicative of a greater problem in our society: the inability to embrace any privation, to delay gratification, to live with some need.  Our culture is one of satiating wants, fulfilling needs, and gratifying desires.  It seems these days we believe the greatest poverty is someone who is unable to have what they want, whether it’s material or philosophical. I should be able to have, do, say, or believe anything I want… simply because I want to have it, do it, say it, or believe it.

Advent is the exact opposite.  It means putting off what I want (to celebrate, eat, drink, and be merry) on purpose.  Is it because I hate Christmas music?  I hate decorations?  I hate Christmas cookies?

Of course not.  It’s because I love those things.

In Advent, we embrace a time of longing and anticipation, which includes an element of penance, since we are accepting a delay of pleasure.  Ultimately, the four weeks of Advent are waiting for the Messiah.  It means entering into the time of our ancestors, as they waited for the first coming of Christ, and embracing our own waiting of His second coming (either at our death or at the end of the world).  With both of these times of waiting, there is an understanding that this world does not satisfy, and we are waiting for the One who will.

We need to stir up this desire for Christ’s coming.  We need to put ourselves in the shoes of our ancestors, who looked with longing for the fulfillment of the prophecies.  We can become so comfortable, so complacent, or even so busy that we forget how much we need Christ.  We forget how much we long for him.  How do we stir up that desire?  By entering into this season of delayed gratification, this time of accepted privation, these four weeks of waiting.

Advent is a time to recognize the hole in our hearts.  It is a hole we accept, because we know it ultimately will not be filled in this lifetime.  During Advent, we embrace it.  C.S. Lewis, taking a page from St. Augustine, posited, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

We can ignore that hole, and we can try to fill it with other things.  Or we can recognize that this world will always be inadequate.

That is what these four(ish) weeks are all about.  Yes, you can put up your Christmas tree today, you can stuff yourself with Christmas cookies tomorrow, and you can sing Christmas carols at the top of your lungs the day after that.  Or you can wait.  You can embrace the longing, the desire to do those things, knowing that your craving will be satisfied soon enough.  And perhaps those decorations, those cookies, and those carols will be that much richer, thanks to the waiting.

Originally published on Integrated Catholic Life.

Good King Wenceslaus and Christmas’ Call to Holiness

Most Christmas carols are about that first Christmas night or the celebration of Christmas today.  But one stands out as something different. In a way, the carol “Good King Wenceslaus” isn’t as much about Christmas as it is about what Christmas requires of us.

“Good King Wenceslaus” always gets stuck in my head on two days: September 28 and December 26. The carol recounts the story of Wenceslaus I, the Duke of Bohemia, walking with his page on the feast of St. Stephen (December 26).  Wenceslaus is now a canonized saint who has has own feast (September 28).

The carol tells the story of Wenceslaus and his page walking through the bitter cold snow. Wenceslaus sees a poor man gathering wood to keep his home warm. The king tells his page to give him not only wood, but also food and drink.  As the song ends, the page is getting colder and fears he can’t walk with the king much longer. The king tells his page to follow him and walk in the footprints he has already made in the snow.  When the page does, he finds there is warmth in the saint’s tracks:

In his master’s steps he trod / Where the snow lay dinted / Heat was in the very sod / Which the Saint had printed / Therefore, Christian men, be sure / Wealth or rank possessing / Ye who now will bless the poor / Shall yourselves find blessing.

Why are we singing a song about a duke walking in the snow on December 26, and why do we consider it a Christmas carol? What can this carol teach us?

Christmas is not a day, but a season. First, unlike most Christmas songs that describe either the preparation leading up to Christmas or the Christmas carols that describe the coming of Christ, this carol speaks of the day after Christmas.  It serves as a reminder that Christmas is not a day, but a season.

In our society, it can actually be hard to celebrate Christmas for the season it deserves. People look askance when you still have your decorations up after New Year’s Day, as if you’re the laziest person on earth.  Try telling someone “Merry Christmas” anytime after December 25 and they will probably think you need to move on to the next holiday. We need to reclaim the season of Christmas.

It is a carol of holiness.  This Christmas carol never mentions Christ, Mary, or Bethlehem. Instead, it is the story of what it looks like to follow Christ. In a way, this is a carol of the universal call to holiness. Despite his rank, Wenceslaus sees himself first as a Christian, and therefore seeks to serve his fellow man.  Sainthood is not reserved for the priests and nuns, but is the vocation of even the king of the kingdom.

It is not just the fact that Wenceslaus seeks out the peasant and gives him “flesh” and “wine,” but also that Wenceslaus treats his servant with respect.  That is a uniquely Christian act.  While our modern culture likes to pretend that societal values such as respect for others is a natural way to live, these values are actually the product of a Catholic culture and the counter-cultural message of Jesus Christ (see Seven Revolutions: How Christianity Changed the World and Can Change it Again by Mike Aquilina and James Papandrea).

We need witnesses and community. Wenceslaus’ page found that following in the footsteps of his master made his journey easier.  We also should follow in the steps of the saints, who have finished this race of life before us.  They show us that the Christian life is livable, and that the vocation to holiness is possible. Holiness is not easy, nor is the path of the saint an easy one. But when we fear we can go no longer, we look to the saints for intercession and example to help us continue down the narrow path.

Similarly, we also find that surrounding ourselves with Christian friends makes living as Christians easier. The Christian life is meant to be lived in community, and we need a culture where we can live, celebrate, and mourn with people who share our Catholic values. If you don’t have such a community, begin cultivating one. If you desire witnesses, begin by being a witness to others.

Holiness always costs. As the carol evokes St. Stephen, it hints at the fate that awaits Wenceslaus as well. Remember, the Catholic Church doesn’t just remember Wenceslaus in this carol, but also on his own feast day. That day, the priest celebrating Mass wears red, as he does on the feast of Stephen, because Wenceslaus was also a martyr for the Faith he held dear.  His brother killed him while he was on his way to Mass.

Wenceslaus followed in the footsteps of St. Stephen, who had followed in the footsteps of Christ.  Holiness is not just about caring for the poor, but is also about having the courage to stand up for the Faith when it costs us. We may not be persecuted for the Faith to the point of shedding our blood, but as Augustine reminds us, “Every age is an age of martyrdom.  Don’t say that Christians are not suffering persecution; the Apostle’s words are always true… ‘All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Tim 3:12).  All, with no one being excluded or exempted. If you want to test the truth of this saying, you have only to begin to lead a pious life and you will see what good reason he had for saying this.” (Sermon 6,2)

The carol “Good King Wenceslaus” reminds us that Christmas is more than just a day of celebration with friends and family.  Christmas should change us, because that night changed the world. We have to answer the call that was made that night in Bethlehem and follow in our Master’s steps. While it will cost us if we do, we also will find blessing.


Originally published on Integrated Catholic Life.

What Will I Give Him?

Have you marked everything off your Christmas to-do list? Last year, Advent was the longest it could possibly be and I still felt like I was running behind the rest of the world. Strangely enough, this Advent – the shortest it can possibly be – I’m not stressed at all about Christmas shopping, baking, and card-writing. Maybe I’ve finally decided that regardless of what the world might say, I know Christmas doesn’t just last for a day.

When you look at your list of Christmas presents to make or buy, have you remembered the most important Person on that list?  Maybe you remembered the mailman and your niece’s boyfriend. But have you remembered… Jesus?

What will I give the Christ child this Christmas? It’s easy to become distracted by making sure we have presents for everyone on our list and a few extras for those we might have forgotten.  Have we thought about what we are going to give Jesus? It’s His birthday, after all.

For some of us, perhaps we need simply to give Him more time.  Maybe it’s easy for me to busy myself serving on seven different organizations at church and helping my neighbors, but it’s hard for me to slow down and be with Him.  Christ wants us to love Him through serving our neighbors, but that doesn’t replace the need to pray and be with Him, too.  I’m sure you love receiving presents from your friends and family, but if they’re just buying you a bunch of stuff and never actually spending time with you, the presents feel a little hollow.  Perhaps this Christmas, you could give Christ your time.  Just sit with Him, whether in the silence of an Adoration chapel or even in your own bedroom (or closet, locked away from relatives, if necessary!).  You don’t even have to speak. Just be there with Him. Maybe he wants to speak to you.

For others, maybe we need to give Him more attention.  Maybe I try to set aside time for prayer or even daily Mass, but they’ve become items to mark off my to-do list.  Perhaps I say the Rosary but find my mind on the mysteries of my life rather than the mysteries of His.  We all know the feeling of buying someone a present simply because we know we should buy one – there is no feeling or sentiment behind it, but it’s simply something to get so we can mark it off our to-do list. Sometimes, this is the best we can do.  But other times, we know we’ve simply given up and phoned it in.  Some days all we can do is offer even our measly attention spans to Christ. But other days, we know we could try harder, we know we can ask Him for help.  Prayer isn’t just words, but our heart united to those words.

For others, you feel you have nothing to offer Christ but your pain. He wants it.  For others, you have great joys in your life and you’re a little afraid that you offer Him those, He will take them away. He wants these, too.  He wants whatever we have to offer Him – because most of all, He wants us.

Do not worry if you feel you feel you have very little to offer Christ.  He wants your time, your attention, your pain, your joy.  We may feel that we can’t give Him something grand. We forget that He created us, and He created us very grand.  Have the courage to give Him your heart for Christmas.