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The Advent, Gifts, and the Sacred

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As technology advances, the world becomes increasingly complicated. Yet at the same moment, these are faded times. The most popular holiday is Christmas, because let’s face it, who doesn’t like to receive gifts? The second most popular holiday is – hold on to your hat – Halloween. In fact, many people decorate more for Halloween than they do for Thanksgiving or Christmas. During Halloween, people give gifts, primarily candy to trick-or-treaters. And of course, Valentine’s Day involves the exchange of gifts between lovers or those who are infatuated or those who just like someone more than everyone else.

There’s another time of gift giving that’s hardly observed anymore. It’s called Advent, or the Gifts of Advent. The Advent is a four-week celebration leading up to Christmas, a time of preparation for the celebration of the birth of the Incarnate God.

Advent starts on the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas, and goes through Christmas Eve. For Roman Catholics, Advent signals the beginning of what is referred to as the liturgical year. Christians – and yes, Catholics are Christians – used to celebrate the birth of the Messiah, called the First Advent. It’s not simply a party celebrating what they believe took place in the past, it’s also a party anticipating what they believe will occur in the future – the Second Advent or Second Coming.

They accomplish this by giving gifts throughout the Advent season. The idea, of course, was borrowed from the Three Wise Men, who arrived bearing gifts at the original birth. In keeping with that original tradition, the gifts of Advent are soaked in the effluvium of tradition and symbolism. Tradition provides continuity, while symbolism is an instrument of knowledge, an ancient and fundamental method of expression, one that reveals aspects of reality fugitive to other modes of expression. In other words, symbolism is a meta-language that transcends normal language.

The primary symbol of the Advent is the Advent Wreath, which signifies sacrificial death and the glory and victory accrued by such sacrifice. Other Advent symbols include the cross and roses. The cross was where the sacrifice took place. The rose has many meanings, the simplest of which is both Time and Eternity.

During Advent, gifts used to be given at regular intervals: either a small gift every day to one gift per week. Mostly, that tradition has fallen by the wayside. But for those who still celebrate the Advent, common gifts are crosses, prayer books, rosaries, CDs, books, diaries, icons, watches, rings, pendants, and arts and crafts. The gifts, whatever they may be, are motivated by grace and signify the sacred, which unfortunately is another vanishing concept in today’s digital world.

That which is sacred is celebrated through ceremony.

The poet William Butler Yeats put it like this in his “A Prayer for My Daughter”:

“How but in custom and in ceremony

Are innocence and beauty born?”

So then, what is ceremony? Ceremony is ascribing ritual and secular liturgy, and thus significance, to any human endeavor, action, idea, belief, or institution. It is the recognition by like-minded persons of a common experience which demands sanctification – for the encounter is sacred for some reason. And the mere act of consecration augments the encounter with the sensation of beauty, or what humans have chosen to denominate beauty. Therefore, it seems reasonable to assert that “beauty” is not simply and purely composed of the physical, but is also ceremonial.

Of course, that statement brings up the question: what is sacred? And as stated above, I believe that we have lost the sense of the sacred in our society in the United States in the year of our Lord 2012. Nothing is sacred as far as I can tell. Not one damn thing; not one idea; not one place; not one person. The mystery of life, the mystery and holiness of the sacred have disappeared.

Sacred is an adjective. It means “set apart; consecrated; made holy; dedicated to religious use; entitled to the highest respect or reverence; venerable; something not common.” And its synonyms are listed as: “hallowed, holy, religious, reverend, divine, devoted, dedicated, consecrated.”

So if something is sacred, it is not common. So a kiss from your lover is sacred. God is sacred. A cross is sacred. Love is sacred. Life is sacred, not because it is not common – everybody has one – but because it is from God. I am sacred, for I am a gift from God, a gift from God to myself. That’s who I am, and that is sacred. Beauty is sacred because it is not common, i.e., everybody doesn’t have it, it’s not everywhere. And over against that, the sacred is beautiful for precisely the same reason: it is not common. It’s hard to find. It’s rare. In fact, it is so rare that it has been “set apart.”

That which is sacred arouses passion, and is vivid. The sacred shimmers with colors in the individual’s soul and spirit. It is recognized as “other,” i.e., not ordinary. It is recognized as special. Therefore the sacred has an apotheotic quality. The sacred, then, could even be said to be esmeric, that is, it is the effluvium, the association, the atmosphere that clings to a thing, or a person or a place: the unseen images, the unheard sounds, the suffused glory, which never dissipates. It is that which makes something so special that we set it apart physically, spiritually, and mentally.

The sacred does not exist in isolation, either. It is realized and recognized and understood by many to be significant, vital, and meaningful. The sacred defies linear logic; it is non-linear in aspect. It is spiritual in some sense, a sense which I cannot define or put into words. It is frail and vulnerable. The sacred is a part of the social machinery and is necessary to maintain the state of affairs, the order, in any society. Something must be sacred. The sacred helps to ensure persistence in groups, in towns, in cities, in states, in nations, on the planet. Without the sacred, the very structure of society would alter in one of several conceivable directions.

And most of those directions are not pretty, for they travel a road to nowhere.

So I guess what I’m saying is this: Christians need to celebrate the Advent. And the way we do that is through Advent Gifts, that is, as long as the giver gives with a grace attitude. It’s for Catholics, but since we’ve already seen that Catholics are Christians, it’s really for anyone celebrating the sacred. If they don’t have what you need, then you probably don’t need it.

By the way, I’m not connected to that site in any way. I’m not being compensated to recommend them. I’m not a shareholder. And I’m not getting any kickbacks. I simply think it’s a good place to renew your celebration of the sacred.

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About Randall Radic