1st Sunday of Advent
Preached December 2, 2018; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
This Holiday Season I am thinking I might be a bit of a Grinch.
I am not going to put out a ‘Keep Christ in Christmas” sign. I am all for keeping Christ in Christmas, at its proper time, but right now we are in Advent, the season of preparation. Christmas does not start until December 25.
The Holiday season, the great celebration of commercialism sponsored by Madison Avenue, is completely antithetical to the true spirit of the Gospel. The Holiday Season with its noise and confusion, with the carousing and drunkenness and anxieties of daily life, drowns out the call to repentance, to spiritual preparation, to prayer, and to contemplation; when we let ourselves be swept away by the Holiday Season, Christmas comes upon by surprise, catches us like a trap, and we find ourselves deprived of the life and joy of Christ’s birth.
For the Church, this is not the Holiday Season, nor is it Christmas, we are now in Advent, the beginning of the Liturgical (or Church) Year.
So why do we celebrate Advent?
You will not find a commandment in the Bible to celebrate Advent, much less will you find anything about how to celebrate Advent.
We celebrate Advent because it is a tradition. It is what we do as Catholics.
What is ‘tradition’? Why is it so important?
Now there is tradition and there is Sacred Tradition.
The Church teaches that everything that was entrusted to the Apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit is, by Sacred Tradition, transmitted in its entirety to their successors. (DV 9) By means of Sacred Tradition “the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.” (DV 8)
Sacred Tradition is even the soil in which the words of Scripture are received and understood. “Through the same tradition the Church’s full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her; and thus God, who spoke of old, uninterruptedly converses with the bride of His beloved Son; and the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church, and through her, in the world, leads unto all truth those who believe and makes the word of Christ dwell abundantly in them.” (DV 8)
Nevertheless, Sacred Tradition does not really exist apart from a multitude of traditions in the Church and among the various peoples who have at one time or another received the Gospel from the Church. In other words it is something that is woven together with the fabric of the life of the Christian faithful as that life is passed on from one generation to the next.
Tradition, in general, is simply the way in which human life is passed on from one generation to the next; it is how people live together and how they teach their children to live together. Tradition is a true common good.
Now Jesus Christ himself warned about substituting human traditions for God’s law, but that is not a condemnation of human tradition, but of its corruption. (cf. Mk 7:8-10). Indeed God’s law, especially the 4th Commandment, Honor thy father and thy mother, gives us the light we need judge of human traditions, whether they have become corrupt, or whether the are vehicles of life.
Tradition is a living reality in human life; that means that it grows and develops (and is pruned), but the growth and development is slow like that of an olive tree.
Jesus warned about the possibility of human traditions taking the place of the law of God; that was a danger for Jews of the 1st century, but it is not much a danger for us today. Today we live in an anti-traditional world; it is not corrupt human traditions that take the place of the law of God, but newly minted human ideas and by the latest fads and fancies.
Today we live in an anti-traditional world, which means that we live in an anti-human world in which the fabric of human life is coming unraveled. In the Church too, while we have sought to hold on to Sacred Tradition, we have lost sight of how Sacred Tradition has been clothed with such a multitude of lesser traditions. We have given way to the practice of jettisoning things that we no longer understand, as though our puny understanding should be the supreme judge of how to live. We should rather listen to the words of the wise man: Do not remove the ancient landmark which your fathers set up. (Pr 22:28)
“The Fiddler on the Roof” which began as a Broadway musical in 1964 and was made into an Academy award winning movie in 1971 gives us a sort of parable of what has happened to tradition both in the world and in the Church.
The story is set in the Jewish quarter of an Eastern European Village, Anatevka, shortly after 1900; the main character is a father of a family named Tevye.
The movie is introduced by a narrative and song of Tevye, “Tradition”.
Life in Anatevka is hard; the people are poor and have to struggle to eke out their living day by day. Tevye says that everyone there is like a ‘fiddler on the roof’, trying to keep his balance while struggling to survive. Why do they stay? Because it is “home”. How do they keep their balance? Tradition! Tradition leads them to know who they are and what God expects of them, even when they don’t know the reason for the tradition, or its origin. In the end, without tradition, life is as shaky as a fiddler on a roof.
The plot develops as a young man who has been to the university and had his head filled with all sorts of modern revolutionary ideas comes to town and starts turning everything upside down, upsetting many traditions. The young revolutionary is successful because the people can’t explain their traditions, while he can always find someone who finds the revolutionary ideas attractive. All he needs is one or two people to accept and idea and put in in practice. Sure a scandal ensues, but it soon blows over and the new idea is accepted. In the same way another new idea is accepted, and so on. In the end the people are driven from the village by a persecution. Nevertheless, holding on to their traditions is what will enable them to survive.
The movie is almost like a parable of the cultural revolution that swept the western world in the 1960s. Traditions were swept away right and left; change was the order of the day for the Baby Boomer generation.
Ironically big business has benefited greatly from all this. Why? Because when people are stripped of their traditions, they lose the strength of an identity that comes from belonging to a reality that has continued for generations; families, bereft of support, are broken down and people they are left as weak and lonely individuals whose life has no meaning; they are ready prey to the artificial meanings thrust upon them by the world of advertising, which seeks only to make a profit from them. The Holiday Season is an anti-tradition that preys upon the weak, who have been left as fiddlers on the roof, without the help of tradition to keep their balance.
Now, the problem is that we do not make traditions, we receive them. Since so many traditions have now been swept away we are not so much in the position of a fiddler on the roof as that of souls drowning in a flood. The more we can grab ahold of planks, fragments of traditions that are still floating around and then even cobble them together into a raft of sorts the better off we will be.
We are helped in this because the most important traditions still survive in the Church. The most important tradition of all is the Sacred Tradition of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Closely connected to the Mass, but extending far beyond it, it the liturgical year, which begins with Advent, is one of those traditions. The Church calendar gives us a very important tradition. The way in which we keep time has a pervasive and subtle influence on they way we think and how we determine our priorities. If someone simply follows the commercial calendar, their thinking and priorities will soon be shaped by the priorities of big business. If someone follows the Church calendar, and these days that requires a conscious intention and a determined effort, he opens himself to the grace of God working through the different mysteries of Christ that are celebrated throughout the year.
Actually, if we consider well the traditions available to us in the Church we will realize that, even now amidst so much confusion and scandal, the Church is more than a plank; the Church is like the ark of Noah in the midst of the flood.
Now what does all this have to do with the Gospel of today?
Let me put it this way our current Pope took the name of Francis directing our attention there by to St. Francis of Assisi who received from God the command to rebuild his Church. The Church of Jesus Christ is once again in ruins and needs rebuilding.
There is also a tradition that says that once St. Francis and another brother were hoeing a piece of land and the other brother asked Francis what he would do if he heard that Jesus returned. Francis replied: “I would finish hoeing this row.” In other words we keep watch and make ready for Jesus’ return by fulfilling the task that has been assigned us. How do we know our task? For that we need to know who we are as members of the people of God; for that we need tradition. We need tradition in order to keep watch and make ready for Jesus’ return. We keep watch and make ready for Jesus’ return by keeping the faith, the Catholic faith.
Jesus once asked, When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? He didn’t give us an answer to his question. It is our task to do everything in our power to make sure that the answer is “Yes”.