I had heard of Lent and giving up chocolate in the weeks before Easter, but it was a not entirely pleasant surprise to find out that Advent is also a time of self examination and penance when Catholics prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ.
The reformed church in which I grew up did not recognise Christmas as a religious festival. Some people did not celebrate Christmas at all, and others kept it as a purely commercial festival for the sake of the kids. Christmas for me was a time of quietly counting Christmas trees glimpsed through open curtains, delving into stockings, unwrapping presents from gaudy paper and over-indulging in food. Although I knew the story of Christ’s birth, I was more likely to hear it in July than at Christmas time.
The idea that the time leading up to Christmas is one of self-restraint as Catholics prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, came as a bit of a shock. I find it hard to reconcile what is going on inside and outside the church at this time of year.
Outside, shops are full of tinsel and bright Christmas displays. I brave packed department stores and queues at checkouts and leave with heavy bags and an empty feeling that I have somehow missed the point. Harried mothers exchange notes on how much shopping there is still left to do. I feel the burden of Christmas as an annual commercial ritual, which becomes more costly every year.
Inside, the church is quiet, waiting, the only decoration is the four candles in the Advent wreath. Extra time has been set aside for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The readings from the prophets talk about God’s mercy, a people being redeemed and returning from exile, streams flowing in the desert dryness. The cry of John the Baptist from the wilderness echoes down the years.
The priest wears purple, just as in Lent. I always thought that purple was a royal colour, a sign of wealth, more suited to celebration than penance. I wondered, why purple was used, and in the liturgical year book for England and Wales for 2013-2014, I found this beautiful explanation. For those who don’t know, as I didn’t until recently, a new liturgical year begins at the start of Advent.
The Year begins in darkness a deep purple darkness where we long for light and the bright shimmer of a star is a sign of hope and life. In the Liturgical Year, purple or violet is a colour of longing, renewal and expectation: in Advent and Lent, at funerals or in the Sacrament of Penance, purple should speak to us of that which we long and yearn for: like a deer longs for running streams, so we yearn for the living God to come to us, to heal us, to be with us. Our purple is a sign of all we long for: the presence of Christ, the washing clean of all sin, the resurrection of the dead.
Purple is also a sign of kingship and majesty the One who comes, the One who heals, the One who raises the dead is himself the King who reigns from the cross….The Church and the liturgy should be waiting not quite there yet, just around the corner….Advent is the unfilled glass polished and made ready speaking in its emptiness of what is to fill it.