Advent: The Fast Before the Feast

When I was at Mass yesterday evening, the priest gave us all an important reminder: it's not Christmas yet. It may look, sound, and feel like Christmas, with all the Christmas decorations and Christmas music. We may be tempted to treat this next month as an extended Christmas season. But it's not Christmas yet. It's Advent, which is a season of preparation for celebrating Christ's birth.

It reminded me that, as Christians, we believe in fasting as well as feasting. It would be a mistake to say that the pleasures this world offers - food, alcohol, sex, money, possessions - are all evil. But we also believe in moderation, and even denying ourselves of those things at times.

For example, think back to Thanksgiving dinner, just a few days ago. Most of us - well, those in the United States, at least - probably filled our plates with all sorts of food: turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, casserole, rolls, and creamed corn. And then, an hour or two later, grabbed a slice of pie. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's a celebration. But if I ate like that for every meal, every day, I would never get anything done; I'd just be eating and napping.

And it's not a sin to have a few drinks with family or friends (provided you're of age, and not driving while above the legal limit, etc.). But should I drink until I black out, or spend hours at the bar every night after work and neglect my family? Probably not.

There are also certain pleasures that we deny ourselves of at certain times. For example, a man and woman wait to be intimate with each other until they get married. They vow to only share that total gift of themselves with each other.

As Christians, we occasionally fast at certain times, for a variety of reasons. One is to exercise discipline. By voluntarily refraining from something - say, eating chocolate - we are better able to control our desires, instead of letting them control us. The other reason is to give more importance to an upcoming feast. That is why Catholics don't eat any food for an hour leading up to receiving the Eucharist. We are building up a desire - in this case, a literal hunger - for the Body and Blood of Christ.

And that is why we spend four weeks of Advent, preparing to celebrate Christmas. Or why we spend 40 days of Lent preparing for Easter.

It can be hard in today's world to wait to celebrate Christmas until December 25. Businesses and media are bombarding us with Christmas, sometimes as early as the day after Halloween. After all, they want us to be constantly thinking of Christmas, because they want us to buy things. That's their job.

So what can I do? I can't always avoid Christmas music, but I don't have to seek it out. I can wait to play that playlist on Pandora until Christmas. I can avoid eating lot's of Christmas treats - cookies, candy, etc.

The best thing I can do is pray. I've already received a few booklets with daily reflections for Advent. I can ask Jesus every day to come into my life. I can meditate on the words of Isaiah: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain." (Is 40:3-4)

What valleys do I need to lift up? What mountains do I need to make low? What are the things in my life that are in the way of my relationship with God?

So while it's not necessarily a bad thing to ask myself which gift I'm buying for whom, perhaps there are other questions that deserve more of my attention.

I wish all of you a blessed Advent and a Merry Christmas.

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