As a campus minister who works with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, I have met some wonderfully witty young people, who have a succinct way of summarizing the lessons I give to prepare them to become Catholics. One student, after hearing me speak about the Second Coming of Christ and the unknown “day and hour,” captured the idea of preparedness from her academic perspective: “You can’t cram for the Second Coming!” Well said.
More recently I was teaching the season of Advent and stated quite frankly my own prejudice in favor of spending Advent and Christmas in northern climates. A law student nodded and proposed a sports metaphor: “Right,” he said, “they should not have hockey in Tampa.” Well, yes. He understood my point of view.
I suspect that my prejudice in favor of winter as the proper setting for Advent goes back to my childhood. When my friends and I sang Advent hymns and lit the candles of the Advent wreath, the season and its rituals were still new to us, connected with all the other manifestations, religious and secular, of the season. The early darkness and cold of winter afternoons created the right atmosphere for looking longingly at sleds in the frosted Hamilton Hardware Store window, well decorated with Christmas lights. And going home in the early dark after ice skating on the frozen baseball diamond was made easier by the enticement of the fragrant Christmas tree, still unencumbered by gifts, waiting to be lit in the dark living room. It even seemed that as I looked forward to Santa’s arrival, being “nice” instead of “naughty” was less difficult in winter.
In winter there is an attraction to light and warmth; we take time to listen to the stories of loved ones and friends. In the cold of a northern Advent, the image of an infant in the chill touches our hearts. Even the crèche animals conspire to protect him from the night air.
The theology of the liturgical season suits winter. The community gathers; we stand together to sing the longing of centuries: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” We hear the words of the prophet: “Comfort my people, ” a cry that loses some of its urgency in brighter, warmer weather. We light candles, an additional one each week as the darkness lengthens; and with the first hint that natural light is returning—one or two minutes more in the afternoon—we welcome the Light from Light, lumen de lumine, as we sing in “Adeste Fidelis.” We celebrate the coming of one who entered into our human condition, as uncomfortable as that can be at times, showing us a path out of our darkness.
As people age, the cold and the dark of December may seem less welcoming, but if you flee from them, you may find yourself in an unsettling position: celebrating Advent in weather better suited to Easter. One year I spent Thanksgiving and the first week of Advent with my sister and brother-in-law at their home in Florida. Their practice is to attend Saturday afternoon Mass. We entered the parish church just as the entrance procession began and the organist struck the first notes of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” My body registered the incongruity of hearing that quintessential Advent hymn as I stood in summer clothing in a sun-lit church. My first impulse was to fear for the organist’s job. Why would she play an Advent hymn in the middle of spring? My confusion soon ended when I realized that this was, indeed, Advent, but Advent in Florida. Still, it just didn’t seem right. It lacked the emotional tone that winter contributes to the season.
I am sure that those who live in a warm climate in December find many fruitful ways to celebrate the Advent season. Still, I cling to my own prejudice: Advent feels incomplete without the cold and the dark, the hymns and the hopes. It is to this world that the Word came and continues to come, bringing the light and the warmth of God’s love.