Now, again, is the time of Advent, which is the traditional period of preparation leading up to Christmas. This is a holy time, as all times are holy. It is unlike other times, even as all times are distinct, and so like each time has its special celebrations. As we have special celebrations for morning and evening hours–Lauds and Vespers–so we also have special celebrations for Spring and Winter months–Easter and Christmas. This is not merely a cultural accident.
The people of God, Jews and Christians, have always, by God’s command, practiced the “sanctification of time”, by which everyday time, the naturally mechanical thing we measure with clocks and calendars, is transformed into a channel of God’s living grace. I first learned of this concept from Charles Williams (an Anglican friend of C.S. Lewis) who wrote beautifully of it in The Descent of the Dove. Looking up the phrase today I quickly found a lovely Coptic Orthodox meditation and a lucid Dominican and Augustinian dissertation on it; I recommend both for further study.
Time is a complicated thing. Hours, days, weeks, months, years are its divisions. The earth, moon, sun, and stars move “for signs and for seasons and for days and years” as Genesis tells us. Physicists and philosophers tell us that time’s actual fabric is deeply mysterious: Bubbly and reversible at the quantum level, relentlessly driving cosmic expansion, relativistically entangled with space.
St. Augustine puzzled over time in Book XI of his Confessions, frankly admitting our difficulties: “What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know. If I wish to explain it to one who asks, I do not know.”
For God’s people time is especially complicated, because we enjoy and celebrate time as both a straight line and a circle. And we also might count our experience of the “right time” or the “moment of decision” as something yet different from a line or a circle; and still more, God’s eternity itself is yet another shape.
As a straight line, the story of salvation has a distinct past, present, and future, in which (as we say in the Mass) Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. Our personal stories of salvation also draw smaller straight lines within the big story: our own dying and rising with Christ in baptism and the disciplines of the faith, and our expectation of his particular Advent to us at the end of this life.
The Church, in her wisdom, also teaches us to see our life in Christ as a circle, or rather a family of concentric circles. We are repeatedly asked to return again to our center, where Jesus commands, at the Last Supper, “do this in remembrance of me”. Christ’s New Covenant repeats and expands the Old Covenant which God made when he brought His people out of Egyptian slavery: from a cramped, hopeless, timeless life to a life with freedom and purpose and direction. Our lives within the Covenant remember and rediscover those great deeds.
From creation forward, as God first set the celestial lights in motion, and as God taught his people the Jews to recall and relive each weekly and yearly celebration, starting with the Sabbath and the Passover, He has taught us all in the Church to recall and relive his acts of grace: His incarnation and birth, teaching and healing, passion and death, resurrection and ascension. We recall and relive God’s works in the Divine Liturgy (the Mass), and in the great yearly cycle of Easter, Christmas, and the lesser feasts.
And inside those weekly and yearly cycles is the daily round of prayers of all sorts, and most especially the Liturgy of the Hours, morning and evening in each day. This daily Liturgy is extremely ancient. It connects to the daily office of the temple worship of pre-Christian times. Indeed, the Divine Office connects all the way back to the creation of time itself, celebrating the hours that were first marked out by light of our sun. That is why so many of the hymns of the Office, especially the traditional ones, sing incessantly about the motions of the sun and stars. It is not just some quirky astronomical preoccupation of Latin monks. It is a celebration of the signs and seasons of Creation itself.
So time is complicated: linear and cyclic, beginning and finishing, continually returning and remembering, branching out and turning back again. We are made for exactly this kind of time, with our sense of comfort in the traditional and predictable, even the timeless, and also with our three “linear” senses of the past, present, and future. It is simply fitting that the ghostly visitors in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol divide their Christmas duties into “past”, “present”, and “yet to come”. In a charming illustration, Augustine points out that he uses these three senses, of memory, attention (or consideration), and expectation, to keep track of his place as he sings a canticle or Psalm. (Yes, that is the Divine Office that he is talking about, back in the fourth century!) He then says this process is present in a concentric series of larger and larger actions:
the same holds in that longer action, whereof this Psalm may be part; the same holds in the whole life of man, whereof all the actions of man are parts; the same holds through the whole age of the sons of men, whereof all the lives of men are parts.
One might connect the three theological virtues with these three senses of time: Faith is our response to our remembrance of Christ’s victory, Hope gives substance to our expectation of the Lord’s final Advent, while Love is our attention to or enjoyment of His life in us, in a present either momentary or timeless.
The hourly, daily, weekly, and yearly observances of our times, and of God’s action in them, the sanctification of time, is therefore the marriage of the physical present with the remembrance of God’s gifts, and the yearning for His promises, and the contemplation of Him in eternity.
The sanctification of time has worked itself out as a series of developments in time. The Office and the Calendar are edited and refreshed or even adapted and reformed as occasions arise. Over time new memorials are added as new saints are canonized or new observances are recognized. For example, the Feast of Corpus Christi declared in 1264 or the Visitation in 1389 or the Immaculate Conception in 1477 or Christ the King in 1925. (Dates taken from Wikipedia.) To make way, some old memorials recede into retirement.
Christmas itself was not observed in December from the very beginning, but was defined in 354 as the observance of Our Lord’s Nativity. Since the Feast of the Annunciation (now March 25) logically goes nine months before the Nativity, it began to be officially observed a few centuries later. Easter, being securely tied to the Jewish calendar through the Passover of the Last Supper, has always been with us. The Sabbath of Creation’s seventh day, though not lost, now gives place (for Christians) to the new and everlasting eighth day of Creation, the Lord’s Day. The celebration of signs and times and seasons is itself a creation in time.
In the traditional Christian calendar, Advent is the beginning of the year. In churches we switch out last year’s missals shortly after the U.S. Thanksgiving. In the Divine Liturgy of the Mass, we will return to the good old readings which anticipate the Messiah, and then to those which celebrate His Nativity. In the Divine Office of the Hours, we are switching books, again from Ordinary Time to Advent. (My book has a dark blue cover.) This switch comes with a change of prayers and hymns. For us at Sing the Hours, it comes with a profound sense of thankfulness, since last December is the month we started in earnest with daily productions of Lauds and Vespers. We have come a long way since then: In memory we relive those early times, which sharpens our present experience of the Hours, and gives us hope for even better things to come.
There are many, many, many special songs in Advent. Chesterton remarked, in Everlasting Man, that the Incarnation, the Almighty becoming a baby, has brought forth a flood of songs and poems:
Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded… [That] contrast between the cosmic creation and the little local infancy has been repeated, reiterated, underlined, emphasised, exulted in, sung, shouted, roared, not to say howled, in a hundred thousand hymns, carols, rhymes, rituals, pictures, poems, and popular sermons.
One of the special Latin songs of Advent is the great Marian hymn, Alma redemptoris mater, “Kind Mother of the Redeemer”. In just a few lines, it deftly summarizes the miracles of the Virgin Birth and the Incarnation, and asks for Our Lady’s prayers. As is sometimes our custom, we have made a literal, expository translation of this hymn which can be sung with the traditional Latin melody.
Here it is. A Blessed Advent to all!
Alma Redemptoris Mater, quae pervia caeli porta manes, Et stella maris, Kind one, the Ransomer’s Mother, The open gate of heaven you remain, And Star of Oceans: succurre cadenti, surgere qui curat populo: Bear aid to the those who fall— Who falling strive to rise—your people. Tu quae genuisti, natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem: You who brought to child-birth, With nature marvelling, Him who is your holy Father: Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore sumens illud Ave, peccatorum miserere. Virgin before, and forevermore, From Gabriel’s mouth speaking, Taking up that greeting, On sinners show your compassion.
translations copyright ©2021 John R. Rose under CC BY-SA 4.0