To fulfill the mission of “spreading the knowledge of him everywhere, like an aroma” (2 Cor 2:14), the Church has divided the year into parts—called liturgical seasons—where each part has a big feast as a reference point.
The year is so marked by a succession of festivals that are meant to make us contemplate, one by one, all the aspects of the mystery of Christ “from the Incarnation to the Nativity until the Ascension, to Pentecost and to the waiting for the blessed hope of the return of the Lord” (SC 102).
Christmas and Advent
As civil year begins on January 1, the liturgical season follows another calendar. It starts with the first Sunday of Advent. It seems logical, in fact, that the events of the life of a character are presented from the day of his birth.
But it was not so from the beginnings of the Church. In the first century Christians had no other feast outside of the weekly celebration of the resurrection of the Lord. On the first day of the week—which until Constantine continued to be called the day of the sun and was a working day—they used to meet to hear the word of God, to celebrate the Eucharist and, in the early years, to share a meal. Then they would go back to their homes, bidding each other goodbye, until they meet again the following Sunday.
Not many years passed and the Church felt the need to dedicate a day for the commemoration of the culminating events of the life of Jesus, and for this Easter was instituted. Halfway the second century this feast has already spread in all the Christian communities. However, a day to celebrate the resurrection of Christ seemed not enough; it was thought then to prolong the joy of this feast for seven weeks, the 50 days of Pentecost.
The celebration of Christmas came in the Christian calendar much later. In 354 A.D. December 25 was set to commemorate the birth of Jesus. Obviously no document of the registry office of Nazareth was found—we know neither the exact date nor the exact year of Jesus’ birth. The choice comes from the fact that on this day the winter solstice and the approach of spring was celebrated in Rome. It was a festival celebrated with irrepressible joy because the sun was beginning to shine.
In the first centuries the Church used to reinterpret, rather than suppress, the rites and pagan ceremonies. So it was that the Christians, instead of banning crusades against the licentiousness of the Saturnalia, changed the name and meaning of the feast of the unconquered sun. They said: Jesus “comes from on high as a rising sun, shining on those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Lk 1:79); he is “the true light that enlightens everyone” (Jn 1:9) and “the radiant Morning Star” (Rev 22:16).
The artist who made the first Christian mosaic in Rome understood it—the mausoleum of the Julii, in the cemetery of the Vatican (250 A.D.)—which depicts Christ on the chariot of the sun.
Around the year 600 A.D., Christians believed that the celebration of Christmas was to be preceded by a time of preparation. Thus the Sundays of Advent were born. It was decided, therefore, to begin the liturgical year with the first of these Sundays, at the end of November or early December.
One who is in love knows that the person loved always comes back in thoughts, dreams, fantasies and conversations. Where she is not present everything turns tedious, boring, monotonous. She becomes the only one and we seek her everywhere. It seems impossible to love without being loved in return.
To believe in Christ means to fall in love with him. It is to discover that his love for us has always existed and never fails us. He does not abandon us even in difficult times, even when our love “cools down”.
People can remain friends, sympathizers, admirers of Jesus of Nazareth. They can limit themselves to considering him the first of the sages, the holiest among people, the most righteous among the righteous. It is not enough. Falling in love is another thing; it is to let oneself be involved in his dreams and share his choices, abandoning oneself in his arms, believing his promises, putting in him all the hopes and expectations.
“I know in whom I have believed”—Paul writes his friend Timothy (2 Tim 1:12). And he does not fear contradictions because he knows the One to whom he entrusts himself.
Perhaps we are not yet in love with Christ: we are afraid to bet our life on his proposal. We believe in the values that he provides. We aim—yes—at something, but not everything, because the doubt haunts us, fear grips us that we might lose the bet.
We do not completely trust because we still do not really know him.
To let the arms down, to give up in front of an overpowering sin that dominates in the world and in us, is a dangerous temptation.
The prophets of doom are those who keep repeating: “It’s not worth to commit oneself; it will not change anything.” “There is nothing to be done, the evil is too strong.” “Hunger, wars, injustices, hate will always exist.”
They will not be heard. The ones who, like Paul, “have known the mind of God” (1 Cor 2:16) see reality with diverse eyes. They look at the new world that is being born and with enthusiasm announces to all: “Now it springs forth. Do you not see?” (Is 43:19).
In our personal life we experience failures, miseries, weaknesses, unfaithfulness. We cannot detach ourselves from defects and bad habits. The uncontrolled passions dominate us; we are forced to adapt ourselves to a life of distressing compromises and humbling hypocrisies. Fears, delusions, remorse, unhappy experiences make us incapable of smiling. Will it still be possible to recuperate trust in ourselves and in others? Can someone give us back serenity, trust and peace?
There is no condition of slavery that the Lord can’t free us; there is no abyss of guilt from which he does not want to lift us out. He only waits for us to be aware of our condition and turn to him with the words of the psalmist: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.”
To internalize the message, we repeat: “I am certain: The Lord will fulfill his promises of good he had done.”
From the beginning mankind’s history—the Bible tells us—is a series of sins. In Genesis chapter 6 the sacred author, with a bold anthropomorphism, says: “The Lord saw how great was the wickedness of man on earth and that evil was always the only thought of his heart. The Lord regretted having created man on the earth and his heart grieved” (Gen 6:5-6).
In the fullness of time, God has intervened to bring about justice. The responsorial psalm proposed to us by the liturgy says to reveal his justice to the eyes of the people.
We know of only one justice, the forensic one, the remunerative justice administered by judges in courts where punishments proportionate to the crime committed are applied. This is not God’s justice: “He is God and not man” (Hos 11:9). God does not respond to sin with retaliation and revenge but by giving the greatest proof of his love, giving to the world his Son.
Some theology of the past recklessly applied to God our justice and presented him as an executioner. It resulted into a Christianity dispenser of fear, not announcer of the Kingdom which is “justice, peace and joy” (Rom 14:17).
At Christmas, God reveals the immensity of His unconditional love. This is his justice. All people are invited to contemplate with wonder and let themselves be free from fear because “there is no fear in love. Perfect love drives away fear, for fear has to do with punishment: those who fear do not know perfect love” (1 Jn 4:18).
To internalize the message, we repeat: “Oh Lord, how different from mine is your righteousness.”