First Sunday of Advent—25 November A.D. 2012
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the day on which the Church begins Her new year. While most of us think of the year beginning on Januaryÿ1st, the Church's year begins in late November, so as to observe a four week period of preparation before Christmas. This is because the Church uses the year to re-enact the story of our salvation—a story which begins in time with the creation and fall of man, and progresses through our Lord's incarnation, birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven.
The four weeks of Advent correspond to those centuries between the fall of Adam and the birth of Christ, in which God's people waited expectantly for the coming of their redeemer. The mood of the season is a somber one—that's why the vestments are purple and some of the more joyous prayers are removed from the Mass. And the somber mood is intended to put us in the proper frame of mind to reflect, not only on original sin, but also on the sins which we ourselves have committed.
It is intended to get us to do penance for our sins, and to sharpen our mental and spiritual faculties, so they are not so completely bogged down by the material side of our nature. We are asked to do a little more fasting and abstinence than usual; a little more praying; a little bit more spiritual reading. We are asked to do these things, not only to bring about a spirit of repentance, but also to make us more fully appreciate the feast of Christmas, when it comes a month from now.
For Catholics, this season of Advent is not the time for music and parties and Christmas celebrations. If we indulge in those things now, we will be tired of Christmas by the time that it actually gets here. Hopefully, our observance of Advent will sharpen our enjoyment of the Savior's birth and the Christmas season which follows it throughout January. If, so to speak, we "wear the purple" now—we will be ready to enjoy the unfolding story of the birth of our Lord, the adoration of the angels and the shepherds, the pilgrimage of the three wise men, the presentation of our Lord in the temple, the flight into Egypt, and all of the other things which the Church has to tell us in the liturgy of the Christmas season.
There is a second aspect to the idea of beginning a new year. The fact that last week’s Gospel and today's are essentially the same suggests that we are moving in cycles. In a certain sense, we can think of this as the opportunity to begin again—a sort of fresh start in the spiritual life. The good Lord willing, we will have a chance to learn about our salvation and what is expected of us all over again. If we missed anything last time, we will have the opportunity to fill in what we missed.
This "beginning again" is not the same as starting all over. What we learned during the last few liturgical years should make what we hear this year more meaningful for us. It should make the spiritual life come just a little bit easier to us. You might think of it as having a role in a play. The first time the actors rehearse they don't know the story very well, they don't know their lines, they don't know how to react to one another—in short, the first rehearsal is a pretty poor performance. But each time they put the play on after that it gets a little better. They start each performance from the beginning of the play, but no one would say that they are starting from scratch. Performance after performance the play gets better and better.
The same should apply to the role that each of us plays in the Church's drama of the liturgical year. We are not mere spectators. We are not like an audience watching a movie about the life of Christ. Rather we should be taking part in that life—learning our lines better and understanding more precisely what goes on at Mass—learning about the lead characters, Jesus and Mary, and how we relate to them on a personal level—and leaning about our fellow actors, and how we relate to one another because of Jesus and Mary.
Let me carry the analogy of the theater a step farther. For many of us it is a frightening thing to appear before an audience to put on a play. We are filled with many doubts about how our performance will be received. But, if we have a good director, one of the things he will do is build confidence in his performers—he will help them to properly grow into their roles. The spiritual life has the same thing in our Lord and in His Church. One of the Psalms read at Mass today suggests the trust we should have:
Even if we are a little unsure of our lines, we have a Great Director in the Spiritual Life—one who will not let us fail, if only we put a little effort into playing our role in the drama of His salvation—the Church's year of grace.
So, please do leave here prepared to begin a holy and fruitful Advent. Make the effort to pray and to read about spiritual things. Make the effort to fast, and to generally withdraw from the affairs of the world. There will be plenty of time to celebrate when the time of celebration comes.
And do begin to enter into the drama of our salvation. View this new liturgical year as an opportunity to improve on last year—as an opportunity to learn how to be a better Catholic, and how to draw closer to Christ.
And most of all, put your trust in God, as the Collect says today, “that He will stir up His might and come ... that He will rescue us from the dangers that threaten us because of sin ... and that He will be our salvation.”
 Psalm xxiv: 1-3