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Every year on this first Sunday of Advent we are reminded that the Church's year is beginning again. After getting toward the back of the altar missal, all of a sudden we have to go to the front of the book to find the text for the Sunday Masses. In fact, it always feels a little awkward to have such a large book open at the first few pages. Some missals seem to just flop closed unless you do something to keep them open.
Yet, we do see some continuity as we move, so to speak, from the front to the back. The Gospel last Sunday and the Gospel today speak about the end of the world -- an event that is obviously appropriate for the end of the year's liturgical drama. And the Church has us read about the same subject at the beginning of the year to remind us that all of life is a preparation for the end; that as a Church we prepare together for the General Judgment, and that as individuals we prepare for our own personal end and for our own particular judgment.
Now, you will notice that the way in which the Church helps us to prepare for both of these judgments is by presenting the story of our salvation to us each year. In Advent we reflect on the fall of Adam and Eve and the 4000 year wait of the Jewish people for the coming of their Redeemer. Christmas, of course, celebrates the birth of that Redeemer, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity born a man in Bethlehem. During Lent we re-live some of our Lord's public life, culminating during Holy Week in His Last Supper, Crucifixion and Death on the Cross. The Easter season celebrates His resurrection from the dead, the 40 days He spent with His apostles thereafter, and finally His ascension into heaven. Pentecost dramatizes the descent of the Holy Ghost on the apostles, the beginning of the public work of the Church, while the season after it goes back to reiterate some of our Lord's teachings, and finally ends (as it did last week) with a glimpse of the day of final judgment.
I say that the Church presents all of these ideas in a sort of dramatic form, by changing the colors of the vestments to convey the mood of the season, by changing all of the variable prayers of the Mass, and particularly be reading to us from the appropriate passages of the Epistles and Gospels. It also makes use of the Rosary to do the same thing in a much briefer form; as we meditate on the major events of the live of our Lord and His blessed Mother in the 15 decades.
It is important, though, to understand that the Mass is more than just a show that we come to attend every so often. It is supposed to be more than just watching a series of video tapes over and over. And the main difference is that the Mass and the Rosary and the liturgical year all constitute a drama that we are called to participate in. If we pray properly, we will not remain mere spectators. As each year passes we should come to feel more and more a part of the drama. We ought to be able to visualize what it must have felt like for Mary and Joseph when Jesus was born in the stable. We should feel comfortable and in familiar company with the apostles in receiving Holy Communion at the Last Supper. We should feel the anguish of those that stood beneath the cross; and the hope and the joy of those found the empty tomb on Easter morning. In other words, we are called upon to imagine ourselves as part of the scene.
There is an important difference between being a player in the drama and being a mere spectator. If you watch the same play over and over, eventually it becomes boring. But if you play out a role in that same drama, as the actors do in a stage play, you find that each performance is a little bit different; and each performance is usually a little bit better, a little bit more natural. And its even said of actors who have a long running production, that the role starts to mold their characters, making them more and more into actually being the character that they represent.
The same is true in this liturgical drama we begin again every year. If we take our religion at all seriously we will not be starting out from scratch, but instead we will be improving on our previous performance, and making our real life selves more and more like the characters in the drama. If we do a conscientious job we will become more and more like Jesus and Mary and the Apostles and the other good people of the Gospels.
Now, one last thought. A good actor comes prepared, knowing the lines of the script -- and maybe even knowing something about the background of the characters and the period of time in which the drama is set. For us that means that we ought to be familiar with sacred scripture, particularly the Gospels, so that we have no trouble in setting the 15 or 20 line Gospel that we hear in its larger context.
This is the beginning of the Church's new year. It is a time for making new year's resolutions. Among any others you may make, you ought to resolve to know your lines in the drama during each season of the coming year. During the next few weeks you can begin by preparing for Christmas through the drama of Advent. Get out your bibles and read the Book of Isaias, or at least through the 5 or 6 chapters of Matthew, Luke, and John that describe the coming of Christ.
This year, resolve to make good use of the "drama" of the Mass, allowing it to mold your character into the character of Christ!