Monday, November 28, 2005

So Old, It's New: Notes on the Season of Advent.

There’s a scene in Orson Welles’ 1958 film Touch of Evil that captures a little of how I feel about Advent, the liturgical season we began yesterday. One of my favorite movies, Touch of Evil is a film noir police procedural about a murder investigation set in a seedy town on the U.S.-Mexico border. At one point, world-weary lawman Hank Quinlan (played by Welles himself) pays a visit to old flame Tana (Marlene Dietrich), a mysterious gypsy who operates a home business of a necessarily vague nature. During a brief reunion Tana remarks on the ways in which Quinlan has changed, admitting that she failed to recognize him at first and pointing out his increasing decrepitude (“you should lay off those candy bars . . . you’re a mess, honey”). For Quinlan, by contrast, Tana and her digs haven’t changed much at all – among other things, the aging cop notes that Tana’s house still contains the player piano he remembers from years before. “The customers go for it,” Tana says of the piano, “it’s so old, it’s new.” A bit like Tana’s player piano, Advent is so old that it’s new.

Advent offers much that is invitingly familiar. Entering a church newly bedecked in seasonal purple and watching the celebrant (likewise in purple) light the first candle in the Advent wreath, it’s hard not to get swept up in memories of Advents past. Even if we’re celebrating Advent with a new community, the season’s visuals have a way of reminding us of old places, things and people. Attending Mass on the First Sunday of Advent, we may recall distinctive ways in which the parishes of our past (perhaps one we grew up in, or one we attended when we were in college) marked the wonderful weeks leading up to Jesus’ birth. This year, I find myself recalling how I experienced Advent at Georgetown with attendance at Tom King’s 11:15 pm Mass. I also remember last year, when I celebrated the Sundays of Advent at Assumption Church in Windsor – something I hope to do again this year. I’m sure the start of Advent evokes special memories for you too. The familiar symbols of Advent summon us to a kind of spiritual homecoming, reminding us – particularly when we find ourselves in new locations or stages of life – that in some sense we’ve been here before.

Advent provides us with a poignant opportunity to reconnect with our past. However, we mustn’t allow our appreciation for the delightful oldness of the Advent season to blind us to its eternal newness. Advent prepares us for an event that should be as startling now as it was two thousand years ago – God’s entry into human history. In the person of Jesus Christ, God came among us to share in our humanity and to offer anew the promise of salvation. Living as religious believers in a secular society, we sometimes have to make an effort to remind ourselves of God’s presence in our world. The Byzantine tradition offers such a reminder in a greeting often exchanged at the end of the Divine Liturgy: “Christ is in our midst,” the priest says, to which the people respond, “He is and shall be.” The season of Advent provides another reminder that God is still and always present among us. Likewise, the season also reminds us that our need for salvation is as great today as it was at the time of Jesus’ birth. In the Advent readings from Isaiah, we find a sense of yearning for the coming of the Messiah – a yearning that can become our own. As old as the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, our need for a divine savior is also urgently contemporary. More than just a season of nostalgia, Advent is a celebration of a longing that is ever new. AMDG.


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