Saturday, November 10, 2012

Wintertown: A Pastoral Possibility

Winter is upon us once again.  Edmonton, being one of the northernmost cities in North America and only seven degrees below the arctic circle, has gained the reputation of being 'Wintertown' or the 'Winter City.'  With October scarcely over, the city is covered by a blanket of fallen clouds and cut across by frozen rivers.
     Come February or March, the mood of Edmontonians will be far from pleasant--the frigid climate will continue to press on and memories of the recent summer all but disappears.  What makes the Edmonton winter all the more oppressive, though, is not so much the subzero temperatures as the nonstop conversation about what a horrible place Edmonton is.  In other words, Wintertown is only as bad as Edmontonians say it is.  So why not change our conversation?
     I do believe that there can be a viable pastoral response to this.  Visiting one of our Catholic schools one day, I noticed a stark contrast between the excitement of the children and the gloom of the adults when the first major snowfall took place.  Then I remembered my own childhood and the seeming magic of snowmen, sledding, and of course everything Christmas.
     My advice?  Pace ourselves.
     We can expect the snow to begin its exit and the first signs of spring in mid-April, even though the vernal equinox has already come and gone.  That having been said, let's keep Advent for what it is, a preparation for the Christmas season.  The tendency to throw Christmas parties before Christmas makes December 25th an end-point rather than a starting-point; by the time December 25th is past, we've exhausted our festivities, only to face another three months of gloomy, pale landscape.  Why not leave the gloomy, pale landscape to the penitential season that Advent is meant to be?
     More to the point, the Advent Season 'dawns' over the last two weeks of November, when the Roman Liturgy begins to speak of the End, a theme that is taken up during the first two weeks of Advent.  Only on the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent do we get a hint of the upcoming Nativity of Our Lord, piqued by the celebration of Gaudete Sunday and the crescendo of the 'O Antiphons' beginning on 17 December.
     This is not to say that we should scrub any efforts at festivity during the early weeks of winter.  The Feast of St Nicholas--provided he remains in his proper context--offers a real and realistic possibility for a winter festival and one that can be twinned with his claim to fame:  charity towards the less fortunate.  As any Edmontonian can tell you, the plight of the homeless in Wintertown is especially brutal.  Why not be Christian instead of Coca-Cola about it?
     With Gaudete Sunday and the beginnings of the O Antiphons, the Christian community in Edmonton can begin to anticipate--anticipate--the birthday of Christ in a way that is intended by the Sacred Liturgy:  Jesse Trees, Old Testament hopes for the Messiah's advent (get it?), and of course the quintessentially English 'Service of Lessons and Carols.'
     Christian life and liturgical life should never be out of sync--otherwise the Sacred Liturgy is reduced to pageantry.  Thus Christmas decorations and Christmas greetings ought to be put on hold until Christmas Eve.  Practically speaking, however, one can begin to decorate the tree with ornaments based upon the Biblical motifs and the O Antiphons, only to place Christmas decorations on the tree and throughout the house after the Missa in Nocte.  (Why else would we begin to celebrate Christmas before the intoning of the Christmas Proclamation, "Today, the twenty-fifth day of December...  Today is the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh"?)
     By then, already two months since the first snowfall, we've only begun to celebrate the holidays.  Holidays, mind you.  We've still got Mary, Mother of God, Holy Family, Epiphany, Theophany, and finally Candlemas.
     Although it has been suppressed by a less thoughtful contingent of the liturgical reform, the time between Epiphany and Candlemas is enough stretch of time to allow for a continued celebration during the cold and dark.  How many parishes carry through the full celebratory tone of these holidays?  Do we exchange gifts on Epiphany--in commemoration of the Magi who presented gifts to the Infant Christ--or have we already been spent on (obligatory?) giving?  Do we take the time at the Epiphany Mass to solemnly announce the feasts for the upcoming liturgical year and conclude the day with a festive gathering?
     Although the Christmas season is already past, vestiges of 'Epiphanytide' remains in the reformed liturgical calendar.  The Church can still mark Candlemas--the Presentation (or Meeting) of Our Lord in the Temple--and keep to an authentic liturgical life by having February 2nd, instead of December 25th, as the end-point of the winter festivals.
     In this way we can keep to the true intent of the liturgy--proclaiming the wonders of God and the events of salvation history through the narrative of the seasonal cycles--and to offer a Christian response to a bleak worldview that offers only a Wal-Mart "holiday season" which ends on Boxing Day and nothing until the snow melts.
     After all, wasn't it our God who made the seasons?


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