Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Stop Fast Forwarding

Second Sunday of Advent Year C

One of the wonders of our digital age is the fast forward button. You can choose to skip the boring and draggy parts of the movie and just skip to the exciting segments with this wonderful invention! The button helps us deal with the agony of waiting, “Oh, I can’t wait for this to be over!” It’s the solution widely sought after in a world in need of immediate gratification. I guess many would wish they could fast forward the entire Advent season, so that we can get to the most exciting part of the month of December – Christmas! If people could have their way, many would regard Advent as unnecessary, a mere inconvenience at the least or a major wet-blanket stifling the festive mood of the season at worst.

By the closing week of November (immediately after Deepavali), any sense of Advent waiting has already been eclipsed by Santa Claus and his reindeers in the lobby, Winter Wonderland scenes dominating atria, the Tannenbaum in every corner and the list of Christmas parties invitations you’ve received. Just last week, I witnessed a friend of mine give her four year old son a catechetical dressing down for having opened his present way before Christmas. I did tell her that she had to accept some blame in the matter - a Christmas tree at the beginning of December was bound to court trouble. In spite of appeals from her other daughters, my friend stood her ground. She was not going to accept anything less than this - her son had to wrap up the present and put it back where he found it. Gratification in the form of an early Christmas present had to wait. Her other daughters, whose earlier recommendation of replacing the traditional baubles on the Christmas tree with characters from Transformers had also been turned down by the iron-steeled mother, labelled her ‘Nag-atron’. That’s what you get when you stand against the tide of cultural trends.

Why this loss of Advent as a distinct season of the Christian year? Why is Advent seen as an awkward intrusion? Perhaps it’s because, for many Catholics, our calendars are dominated not by the venerable rhythms of sacred time announcing humanity’s redemption but by the swifter currents of consumerism and efficiency. The microwave saves us from waiting for a meal to simmer on the stove, fast lanes save us the trouble of waiting in long queues to pay for our purchase, and this backward extension of the Christmas season liberates us from having to deal with Advent, that awkward season of waiting.  And so, before the last fireworks were set ablaze and Deepavali decorations returned to the warehouse, halls and malls are decked with plastic holly, crimson ribbons and fake snow. This merely demonstrates my point that immediate gratification has become the ultimate goal of modern man’s pursuit for happiness. The reason why Advent is ignored and so unpopular is because the season applies the brakes to the seemingly unstoppable momentum of immediate gratification. Whilst technology seems to affirm the world’s judgment that waiting is bad, the Church, through its celebration of Advent counters with this message – waiting is sacred! Advent is a proclamation of the Gospel through the discipline of waiting.

There is something penitential about the nature of sacred waiting, since penance is either the denial or the postponement of gratification not for its own sake but in order that a person may open himself unselfishly to God. One of the most important aspects of the season of Advent is its penitential character, something which is often ignored. But if we pay attention to the little details of our Liturgy, we would come to recognise this. We recognise it in the form of the purple (it’s violet) coloured vestments the priests wears, reminiscent of funerals and the sister season of Lent.  The Gloria is silenced and suppressed only to be sung once again at Christmas, as if its absence will make the heart so much fonder to worship God with the song of the angels announcing the birth of his Son in Bethlehem. We see it in the toned down floral decorations, the discouragement of festive celebrations, including marriages (although the Church does allow weddings during the seasons of Lent and Advent, priests are under an obligation to catechise the couples on the proper penitential nature of the seasons). And of course in this diocese, priests make their rounds hearing confessions at penitential services celebrated in different parishes. Finally, we see it most clearly in the readings of today; readings that speak of penance and repentance in preparation for the Coming of the Lord.

The gospel of St Luke introduces the epitome of penance, St John the Baptist, who articulated this not only in his message but also in his lifestyle. In today’s gospel, we hear him preaching the message of repentance and promoting a baptism for the forgiveness of sin as preparation for the Coming of the Messiah. It is important for us to understand why this was an important part of the preparation. Sin is an obstacle to the action of God in a person’s life because it blocks God’s grace. As St Paul tells us in the second reading, our Christian goal is to “become pure and blameless, and prepare ourselves for the Day of Christ, when (we) will reach the perfect goodness which Jesus Christ produces in us for the glory and praise of God.”  The obstacle of sin must therefore be removed in order that we may attain this lofty goal. The removal of obstacles is dramatically and symbolically described in the prophecy of Isaiah as a massive engineering work, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth…”  In other words, repentance and conversion cannot just be a superficial performance of penances. What is more important is the inner conversion which opens us to the life of grace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that “Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes,” fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance.” (CCC #1430)

There seems to be less and less stress on sacrifice and penance. Rather, instant gratification seems to be the flavour of our times. The theme of waiting and the penitential character of the season of Advent should be restored in order that the necessary correction be made in our orientation to prepare for the two comings envisaged by Advent, the first Coming at Christmas and the second Coming at the end of time. Sacrifice corrects our orientation and directs us to worship God and not self. Penance corrects our vision which seems fixated with our present earthly existence in order that we may truly see that Heaven, and not earth, as our home. Through penance, we reject the need to gratify ourselves through selfish ways. Through penance we reject the vain need to be in control. Like instant coffee and high-speed technology we may expect everything and every person to bow to our control, but in vain. Penance should ultimately lead to humility and humility brings freedom from the frantic bondage of self-aggrandisement.  Trying at every turn to affirm, exalt, and protect oneself is an exhausting enterprise. Receiving one’s dignity and self-worth as a gift from God relieves us from this stressful burden.  Freed from the blinding compulsion to dominate, we can recognise the presence of God even when are waiting in long queues or caught up in traffic jams. Instead of death and destruction, penance brings healing, restoration and purification.

The waiting that comes with Advent and the call to penance should never be understood as taking the fun out of Christmas. Merely, lighting a few pink and purple candles will not, in and of themselves, trigger a renaissance of patience or a yearning for the presence of Christ. Neither am I suggesting that you should dismantle your Christmas trees and mute every carol until Christmas morning. But the message of Advent must not be lost in our preoccupation with the accoutrements of Christmas. We are called to wait. We are called to repentance. We are called to conversion. And there is no contradiction between waiting and repentance that forms the basis of our Advent observation and the joy of the Christmas celebration. In fact, the former heightens and deepens the experience of the latter. When we do away with the necessary spiritual preparations of waiting and repentance, and replace it with an extended version of Xmas, we are dooming ourselves to an emotional and spiritual anti-climax, a big let-down after all the festive hype and carolling, and Christmas parties that precede the actual celebration of Christ’s birth. So, let’s take our finger off the fast forward button and move it to the Pause; to pause that we may savour the beauty and flavour of Advent. Let us pause in order that we may take in the full view and have time to reflect, recall our sins and remove the obstacles that prevent us from meeting the Lord. Let us pause that we may join our longing with that of Christians of every age who desire to see the salvation of the Lord.

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