We all need chances to start over from time to time. The beginning of a new liturgical year is one of these times for me, but really any day will do. Every day has the potential of becoming the starting point for a new habit or practice, or for renewing a relationship that already exists but that has grown stale or conflicted. What in your life could use a fresh start?
We stand at the threshold of a new liturgical year.[i] This season of Advent, of course, is a time of waiting and expectation and even longing, as we anticipate the celebration of our Lord’s birth at Christmas. The practice of celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25th was initiated by Pope Julius I around the year 350. Since the exact date of Jesus’ birth was unknown, the choice of December 25th was rather arbitrary, but not completely random. A number of cultures in Europe already had festivals that marked the winter solstice (December 21). The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a month-long holiday honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture; and it is commonly believed that the Church chose the 25th of December in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. Some Romans also marked the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. The Church’s feast was first call “the Feast of the Nativity” and the practice of observing it on the 25th of December spread to Egypt by 432, and to England by the end of the sixth century.
Festivals on or near the winter solstice were celebrations that anticipated the coming of longer days and the return of light. For Christians, celebrating the birth of the Savior at this time of the year was a way of adapting and transforming popular pagan beliefs and practices and infusing them with new meaning. Jesus, the “Light of the World,” had come, and was coming, to banish our darkness and illumine our lives with his radiant presence.
As we enter this particular season of Advent, we recognize that we all have been living through a period of intense darkness associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. While we had hoped that this season of sickness would be short-lived, in reality it has continued to plague us for months beyond the medical community’s initial projections, and though the prospect of a vaccine has shed some light of hope on the road ahead, we have been warned that there is more sickness and death in our immediate future. So we continue to hold on, doing what we can to curb the spread of the disease, taking care not only of the sufferers but of their caregivers, and of one another, enduring the darkness until the light shines once more.
Perhaps these circumstances will deepen our experience of Advent this year, as we persevere, waiting for the light’s return to banish the temporary rule of darkness.
God bless you all in this holy season. We pray for you, we encourage you, we love you. Stand fast.
On behalf of the SSJE Brothers,
David Vryhof, SSJE