One of the riches of a universal Church is that it contains a fullness of traditions that inform and enlighten each other. This is especially true of Byzantine Catholics, who worship with the rites of the Eastern Orthodox while in communion with the bishop of Rome.
This week’s issue of Our Sunday Visitor briefly highlights how the practice of preparation for the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas) varies for our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters (Pages 14-15). One aspect that would be unfamiliar, especially to younger Catholics, is observing this season as a six-week period of fasting and penance.
While unfamiliar, this is likely to be enlightening to Roman Catholics, as the seasons of Advent and Lent share the feature of a series of penitential (purple) Sundays interrupted by one joyful (rose-colored) Sunday. In Lent, this observance — Laetare Sunday — comes as almost a relief from the dour self-denial of the month preceding it. In the case of Advent’s Gaudete Sunday, the joyful theme almost seems to blend into the white noise of so many Christmas carols, which have been saturating the airwaves and the shopping malls since All Saints Day.
The Eastern Catholic practice of fasting during this period of the year provides a necessary bit of evangelization to a commercialized culture, an antidote to its full-bore consumption mode. As the Byzantine Catholic priests in this week’s Faith article note, looking forward to something does not mean celebrating it early, as is the convention with Christmas in U.S. culture. Rather it’s about learning to love in expectant longing, delaying the gratification of the impending celebration. And this exercises an important set of spiritual muscles — namely, the virtues of hope, fortitude and temperance. And it reminds us that fasting is not about denying the self because the physical is somehow bad, but about the mastery of one’s desires toward the glorification of God.
Just as these spiritual practices challenge the consumerist celebration of Christmas, they fit very well with the inclination to give to others and engage in charitable work before and during the Christmas season. As Father John Custer told OSV, giving less to oneself means having more to give to others. Self-emptying is also a path to greater holiness and closeness to God.
Running through all of this is the intentional choice to invest in that which is truly meaningful this Advent, to prepare ourselves fully for the Lord’s coming by pushing our focus past the transient trappings of this world. In his column in this week’s issue (Page 13), Catholic counselor and author Dr. Greg Popcak notes that the difference between pleasure that brings one true and lasting joy and that which doesn’t is found in its meaningfulness.
Ultimately, the Incarnation is about putting humanity in immediate touch with its ultimate meaning. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth,” are the familiar words of “O Holy Night.” That is the value of bringing these practices of our Eastern brethren to our Advent. When we authentically transform ourselves in a lasting way, the joy of that freedom will be something we can authentically communicate and spread to the rest of the world.
May these final days of Advent be a time of true preparation and of reaching for that which brings deeper, lasting meaning. And through that preparation, may you find joy.
OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, York Young