As is so often the case, the world gets things exactly reversed. From before Thanksgiving to December 25, it’s all about buying, and doing, and buying more stuff, so that by Christmas, everybody is exhausted. Then the carols stop and the decorations come down, emphasizing the post-holiday letdown.
But the Church knows better. During Advent, we wait; we prepare; we reflect. On Christmas Day, we begin to celebrate Christmas, and we keep on celebrating for twelve days, till the feast of the Epiphany on January 6. In fact, in the ancient tradition of the Church, the season continues until February 2, Candlemas—exactly forty days after Christmas. Advent, Christmas, and Candlemas form almost a mirror image of Lent and Easter. As in Lent we reflect on the Crucifixion and Resurrection, so during Advent, Christmas, and Candlemas we reflect on the Incarnation.
The word “advent” means “arrival”: we await the arrival of Our Lord Jesus Christ—both past and future. Past: because at Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, for he is not an idea or a metaphor, but truly God and truly man, an individual, specific man born on a particular day in history. Future: because we look forward to Our Lord’s second coming, on the Last Day, when all the dead will be resurrected either to eternal life or to eternal punishment—heaven or hell. It’s an unsettling thought, but also a clarifying one: it matters whether we live and die in friendship with God or in rejection and opposition to him. That’s why the traditional themes of Advent—death, judgment, heaven, and hell—are serious ones, and why Advent is a partially penitential season: the three purple candles and corresponding priestly vestments are the same color used during Lent.
And so, during Advent, we should be reflecting that our earthly life will come to an end—either in our own death, or in the coming of the Lord. Are we like the wise virgins in the parable, who had their lamps full of oil, ready to meet the Bridegroom? Or are we like the foolish virgins, who didn’t give it a thought and were unprepared and left outside when the Bridegroom came?
The Church has a great tradition of helping us to prepare, by the Great “O” Antiphons, which are short prayers that show different aspects of who Christ is. Here, I’ve chosen just one of the antiphons to reflect on, using the beautiful English translation from the Ordinariate Missal, Divine Worship.
O Clavis (O Key of David)
O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel; that openest, and no man shutteth, and shuttest, and no man openeth: come and bring the prisoner out of the prison-house, and him that sitteth in darkness and the shadow of death.
O Clavis is the fourth Antiphon in the sequence, which means it stands at the turning-point; it is perhaps the most significant of the Antiphons, as it sums up our problem and Christ’s promise; it helps us to understand why the words of the Prophet Isaiah are so important for Christmas: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
Sadness, grief, and suffering are part of human life, but in our modern day, we often don’t really know how to deal with sadness. We want a quick fix, to feel better right away, and that not only puts pressure on ourselves when we feel low, it also puts terrible pressure on other people to pretend that they’re doing okay when really they’re not. We walk in the darkness and the shadow of death, and pretend we’re in the sunshine.
Now, I want to say straightaway that depression is a complex issue. Sometimes there’s a biochemical component, for which medication can help a great deal. Sometimes it’s linked to other medical or psychological concerns, as in post-partum depression or post-traumatic stress. It is always good to offer up our suffering to Christ, but when depression is deep or long-lasting we should also seek help as needed and encourage others to do so.
What I want to focus on here is the spiritual experience of depression.
Depression is not the same thing as ordinary sadness or a bad mood. It often seems to come out of nowhere, not related to any specific cause: a very common image is the “black dog” that just comes round to visit sometimes. Just saying “cheer up!” to someone suffering from depression is cruel. If I’m depressed, I would very much like to cheer up, but I can’t—that’s the problem! And saying “Think about all the things you can be grateful for!” doesn’t help either. Okay, now I think about those things, and I still feel depressed, but now I also feel guilty for being depressed.
The truth is that many of us experience depression at times, or in ways, that are not life-threatening but are still difficult and distressing.
That’s one of the reasons why “the prisoner sitting in the darkness and shadow of death” is such a profound image for Advent, in our over-commercialized culture. Let’s face it, the holiday season is tough. We’re bombarded with images that say we should be merry, and happy, and surrounded by the perfect family, and joyful, and buying lots of stuff! And if we are sad or lonely, or have difficult and wounded relationships with family, or just live far away from them, or if we are financially struggling, ill, or just plain tired—then we compare ourselves to this super-happy, perfect, completely unrealistic ideal, and of course we fall short, and find ourselves in darkness.
It’s no surprise that studies show that rates of depression go up during the holidays. All this pressure to be extra happy makes it harder to be naturally happy, and all these messages that we should be super happy make it all the more apparent when we’re not—creating a downward spiral.
We can spend a lot of time, energy, and money running away from our own experience of darkness and the shadow of death—but if we are not afraid to look at it, it can help us draw closer to Christ.
Without Christ, we are all prisoners in darkness. We cannot rescue ourselves from our own sins and our own alienation. We are the people walking in darkness—and it is when we recognize that that we can truly rejoice that the light has come.
Christ is the Key. He died to save each one of us from our own, individual prison. When we go to confession and the priest speaks the words of absolution, we need to recognize those as the words of Christ, because indeed the priest is acting in persona Christi, as Christ, when he hears confession. That’s why when the priest says, “Your sins are forgiven,” they actually are forgiven, at that moment, for real—not just as a nice thought or an encouraging word, and not just sins in general, in the abstract, but yours: the particular ways you went wrong, or failed to do what was right. Sometimes we suffer through no fault of our own; sometimes we suffer because of our own sin. But in all cases, Christ is the Key who can free us from every prison and all forms of darkness.
Now, to be freed from darkness and imprisonment does not mean to be freed from suffering. It does mean that our suffering is meaningful and redemptive. When Christ as the Key unlocks us, it can be a very painful experience—so much so that we may be tempted to stay locked up in our prison cells. We may be tempted to say, “I’m a good person. I’m doing just fine. My little sins are no big deal”—which means we are hiding the truth from ourselves, and we are in fact in a much worse state than we realize. Or we may be tempted to say, “My sins are too big, God can’t possibly forgive me, I can’t forgive myself”—but no sin is too great for God to forgive, and he wants to forgive you; he wants to unlock the door of your prison-cell and let in the light.
This is where we must take courage. Let us pray that Christ the Key of David will open us into the light and life of the kingdom of God.
Tomorrow I Will Come
The seven O Antiphons—Christ as Wisdom, Lord, Root, Key, Day-Spring, King of the Nations, and Emmanuel—spell out a promise. If we take the first letter of each Latin antiphon in reverse order—E for Emmanuel, R for Rex, O for Oriens, and so on—it spells out a phrase in Latin: ERO CRAS, which means, “Tomorrow I will come.”
“Tomorrow I will come”—here, these seven Antiphons point toward the coming feast of the Nativity, Christmas, when we will celebrate the Incarnation, God-with-us in the flesh.
This reverse order is no mistake or coincidence. It’s a reminder to us that the Incarnation turns everything upside down, just as Mary proclaims in the Magnificat!
And it’s fitting that as we reflect on Christ, we also reflect on his mother Mary.
In ancient tradition, she is said to have conceived Christ in her heart at the moment of her “yes” to the Archangel Gabriel, and then to have conceived Christ in her womb at the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. Only Mary, ever, has the privilege of physically conceiving and bearing the Christ-child, but all of us can conceive him spiritually, by saying “yes” to the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, when we receive his Body and Blood in Holy Communion, we become like Mary in that we carry Jesus within ourselves.
“Tomorrow I will come,” the Advent Antiphons promise, looking ahead to Christmas—and we can reflect also on the tremendous humility of Christ, and his infinitely valuable gift to us, that while we await his second coming in glory he is already here, now, today, in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar.
There’s a prayer to Our Lady of Walsingham, which I include as part of my own daily prayer, that sums all of this up beautifully:
Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that, as in the mystery of the Incarnation, the Blessed and Ever-Virgin Mary did conceive your son in her heart before she conceived him in her womb, so we, your pilgrim people, rejoicing in her motherly care, may welcome him into our hearts, and so become a holy house, fit for his eternal dwelling, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end.
This Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and as we await his second coming, let us ask Mary for her help to prepare a holy house for Christ in our hearts, so that we may truly welcome the Key who brings us out of darkness into the light of life.