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Joe Hoover, S.J.December 01, 2023
Winter in the center of Milwaukee, Wisc. (iStock)

In the spirit of the cherished holiday fable, we bring you a story about a fictional visit to a fictional midwestern college friend (which, being an actual midwesterner, I can pull off) as an on-ramp to reporting real things about Advent. We would like to assure our readers, though, that, except when we do things like proclaim the University of Notre Dame football team a lock for the national title, America is not becoming a fiction magazine. 

During my freshman year of college, my roommate was a half-hearted Catholic and true son of Wisconsin named Bam Brewkowski. Bam was a towheaded cross between Robin Yount, Curly Lambeau and custard. He grinned deliriously at the cold. His fashion statements were all spelled “Carhartt.” He was awesome.

We went to Maxmagee, a small Catholic college on the edge of downtown Milwaukee. I cannot recall the Brew being a devout practitioner of the Roman faith. So it was edifying when I, a devotee of the Badger state and all things Milwaukee, joyfully passed through the old stomping grounds this Thanksgiving and, at a lunch counter over Meisterbrau floats, listened to all the ways Bam was living out the old religion.

When I tentatively asked him, for instance, if he was going to partake of the many unique and prayerful Catholic traditions that happen during the Advent season, Bam was quick with an answer.

“Well, first off, the archdiocese is having everyone go to confession on the third Sunday of Advent,” he said. “So, I’ll do that.”

“Oh, wonderful!” I said. (I admit my question had a little bit of seed-planting in it. As a Jesuit I would be thrilled if Bam started taking his Catholic faith seriously. But Bam was evidently way ahead of me.)

“Yeah, it’s a tradition that goes back to the very first Advent,” he said, “which took place mostly on a donkey to Bethlehem. Joseph confided his past sins to Mary: Lord’s name in vain. Made a table wrong, etc. Church has been doing it ever since.”

“Hmmm,” I said. “Bam, I thought that the holding of confessions on one Monday during Advent was a practice instituted by dioceses all over the country (I decided to speak in bold print when reeling off the Advent facts) both to draw people back to the woefully underrated sacrament of reconciliation and to purify our hearts for the coming of—”

“Joe, I know you’re a religious brother and everything—much respect—but you really need to amp up your church history. Advent was started by your namesake in the year 0, A.D.

“Okay, I’ll have to do some research on that one,” I said. “By the way, you going to the Wisconsin game next week?”

“No, we’ve got Lessons and Carols that Saturday, over at St. Vincent of Lombardi’s.”

“Lessons and Carols!” I exclaimed. “What a beautiful service! Lessons and Carols, as you know Bam, is an interspersing of Christmas carols and hymns with nine Bible readings that make their way through The Fall, prophecies of the Messiah and the birth of Christ. The service began in England in the late 1800s, takes place across denominations and offers a way to meditate on the incarnation of our Lord and Savior.

“You’re speaking very formal, Joey.  Do you, like, wear bow ties or something? Anyway, you don’t quite have it. Lessons and Carols is a sandbag-filling party.”

“What?”

“Yeah. Water levels are rising everywhere. Lake Michigan, Milwaukee River, local swimming pools. Do you even read the news? We gotta get ready for the floods.”

“So, why do they call it Lessons and Carols? I asked.

“Why wouldn’t they?”

I fell silent. There was absolutely no arguing with that. 

“Anyway, and the next night I’ve got Vespers at this magnificent church right on the south shore. Our Lady of Trout.”

“Another lovely prayer of the church, Bam,” I said. “Vespers is included in the Liturgy of the Hours. It is a service of quiet prayers, songs and scripture readings, including Mary’s Magnificat. As with confession, Vespers is particularly suited for the season of Advent as we make a quiet space in our hearts for the arrival—”

“No,” interrupted Bam. “Vespers is where everyone decorates their scooters with Christmas wreaths and zips through the city singing that disturbing Grandma Reindeer song.”

“Oh, Bam,” I chided, “you’re probably getting Vespers confused with Vespas—the chic Italianate scooter.

Brewkowski just stared at me.

“How did they even graduate you from Maxmagee?”

I shrugged. “Got lucky, I guess. So, anyway, then the week leading up to Christmas you’ll have some days off work? Sit around drinking cocoa and watching ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ or ‘The Shop Around the Corner’?”

“No.” he said. “I’ll be joining a Filipino co-worker in Simbang Gabi.”

“Simbang Gabi? Sounds familiar. What is that again?”

“Simbang Gabi,” said Bam confidently, “is a time when Filipinos at home and abroad flock to churches in the early hours of the morning to celebrate a novena of Christmas Masses.” 

“In fact, Joe,” Bam went on, “in the Philippines, where there is no need to wait until after Halloween and Thanksgiving, the popular Christmas season begins as early as September.”

“Hold on, hold on,” I said. “I think you lifted that straight from an America magazine article. Where I work.”

“A little possessive aren’t we?” shot back Bam. “Did Jesus worry about his quotes being used by other people? I don’t think so.”

“Jesus didn’t…anyway, look: That article was written for us by Angelo Canta. Who, by the way, went on to enter the Jesuit novitiate, a splendid vocational option for any young Catholic man seeking to serve the Lord with vigor and—”

“You lost me at splendid. Speak normal. Anyway. I didn’t know you could put links in conversation.” 

“Links. I’m glad you mentioned links,” I said, “Sometimes, Bam, when you’re writing an article, and you’re just not up for doing any more ‘actual journalism,’ which entails things like ‘looking up facts’ and ‘verifying sources,’ you rely mostly on links to other people’s stories. So, what other Advent traditions might we link people to Bam?”

“Well, there’s the Mexican tradition of Los Posadas,” he said. 

Perfect.

“You’ve got the Jesse Tree,” Bam continued. 

Our readers are wild about trees.

“The joys and quirks of the Advent Calendar.” 

Superb, Bam.

“‘The Longest Night’ or ‘Blue Christmas,’ which offers solace for those who grieve during Advent, and which America also did a fine article on.”

 

“Thanks for the affirmation of our magazine, Bam!” 

“And then Advent officially ends Christmas Eve,” Bam stated with finality, “where the Children’s Mass and Midnight Mass are big favorites.”

“All right Bam, I think I have enough,” I said, gratefully. “Gotta head back to New York. So, blessed Advent, my friend. And, if I don’t speak to you till the 25th, Happy Christmastide.”

“Christmastide? Must be a coastal thing. But I appreciate the thought.

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