We find ourselves in the midst of another autumn. Leaves fall, plants wither, days get shorter as darkness seems to be victorious, and the chill in the air tells us that winter is near. Long ago the Church accommodated these yearly seasonal changes to its own pattern of worship and belief. The growing darkness and increasing cold tell us in parable about the darkness and cold of sin and death. The starkness of the season tells us about the need to be prepared for the winter; to have provisions for our spiritual households. Just as we yearn for spring, so the Church yearns for the Light that is Christ and for the Easter of Springtime that brings us hope of eternal life. And over-arching all of this is the promise of Jesus that he will return again.
The scriptures of our Sunday liturgies appropriately tell us, often in the form of warnings, that we ought to be prepared for the second coming. On the thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time the prophet Malachi shouts, “Lo, the day of the Lord is coming, blazing like an oven...” On the following Sunday the Church fittingly celebrates the end of the Church year with the feast of Christ the King. At that liturgy Paul writes that God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” The same sentiments overflow into the new liturgical year that begins the following week with the first Sunday of Advent, although with more emphasis on hope and light. The prophet Isaiah calls us to “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord,” and Jesus warns that “the Son of Man will come at the time you least expect.”
We know about the changes of the seasons, their power and their predictability. Thus it is no surprise to Christians to learn that the origins of the Advent weeks and the Christmas festival are anchored in nature’s cycle of darkness and light. Indeed, the winter solstice (the moment when suddenly the days begin to get longer) sets the stage for the feast of Christmas. After all, the solstice tells that we are not overcome with darkness, and that the cold, gray and bleakness that seem to have captured all of nature will most certainly be overcome with light and warmth. In other words, the sun will be victorious. It was easy enough in history to make the fully appropriate analogy to our spiritual lives and the life of the Church. The darkness of sin and death can never be victorious. In the end, the Son conquers. In the end, sin and darkness and death are vanquished by Christ who is the light of the world.
The coming Advent season attempts to help the Christian community set aside preoccupations in order to prepare for the celebration of Christmas. It also calls us to a deeper awareness of the Lord’s second coming at the end of time, the Lord whose presence among us we continue to recognize and ritualize each time we gather for the celebration of the Eucharist. Following Advent, the liturgical spirituality of the Christmas season once again calls the Christian to remember the birth of the Savior, and transformed by the power of that memory and by the many ways the Lord is manifest to us in history, to look forward with joy to his return in glory.
One of the most popular items on the Christian section of your local bookstore is the “Left Behind” series of books. This set of twelve books portrays what things will be like in the end times, and depends for its imagery on the authors’ interpretation of the bible’s Book of Revelation. The end time, as the books describe, will be a time of judgment, with horrific terror in store for the unfaithful. For those faithful, the remnant, there awaits the great “rapture,’ spelling eternal happiness. But what is the “rapture,” so often spoken of by many evangelical Christians, but not a part of the vocabulary of Catholic Christians?
The rapture is not mentioned anywhere in the bible. It is a word that means an exhilarating or thrilling experience. The word seems to have originated in a footnote in a famous Protestant study bible, describing a passage from the New Testament that says “Then we, the living, the survivors, will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). This particular study bible was used for so many years that the word “rapture” came to be the term that was used to sum up the wondrous experiences in store for those faithful who would survive the judgment of the end times. The concept of a rapture also became intermingled with literal interpretations of the Book of Revelation, resulting in preaching that emphasized the security and confidence of knowing that you are saved, the eager anticipation of the heavenly rapture, and, of course, the horrors that await the damned.
Why do Catholics not speak of the rapture? Perhaps we would if we had used the same study bible for so many years. In addition, we certainly believe in the concepts of final judgment, heaven and hell - that we are responsible before God and before others for our human decisions, and that there are consequences for those decisions. However, as our liturgy indicates time and again, we do not view salvation as our waiting anxiously for the end times, while patiently enduring the here-and-now. For Catholic Christians the world around us is not something fundamentally evil, something that we can’t wait to escape in order to be “taken up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” The world around us is holy, because the holy God created it. The world around us nourishes us on the journey to meet the Lord. The world around us is the place where we can encounter the God of mystery in countless ways. We dare not be passive on the journey, in any way smug because we have been saved. But we do not need to warn others of their impending damnation, as some fundamentalist Christians seem to do.
In addition, the Roman Catholic position is that we do not interpret the bible literally. There is an inherent danger in using biblical proof texts - taking certain passages out of the bible, often out of context, and proposing them as proof of what we believe. We have seen what happens in the course of history, when, for example, people give literal interpretation to the Book of Revelation. Christians have attempted to match the symbolic and metaphorical imagery in this book to current events in the news, or have attempted time and again to see in these scriptures a prediction of when the world will end. Perhaps most of these conclusions were good -willed, but misled. The scriptures must always be understood in their authentic context, or there is the risk that the real meaning will be lost. As renowned scripture scholar Fr. Eugene Laverdiere remarks, the fundamentalist or literal approach to understanding the scriptures is not a particular interpretation of the bible, but rather it is the lack of any interpretation, for the words are accepted only at face value.
The feast of Pentecost will bring to a close the fifty days of our Easter season. The Easter season has really been a part of the liturgical year longer than has the season of Lent. In fact in the early Church the entire Easter season was called Pentecost, originally a Greek word that means fifty. In the earliest decades of Church history Pentecost Sunday celebrated both the ascension of Jesus into heaven and the gift of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Thus the church historian Eusebius reports that the emperor Constantine died on Pentecost Sunday in the year 337, and that this day, which sealed the seven weeks of Easter, was also the day Christ ascended into heaven, and when the Holy Spirit came upon us. Undoubtedly Pentecost borrowed some elements from the Jewish Pentecost, sometimes called the Feast of Weeks. This was a period of seven weeks that followed the celebration of the Passover. Originally a harvest festival, this Jewish Pentecost later came to commemorate the giving of the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
Some parishes have begun the tradition of encouraging people to wear red clothing on Pentecost, since red is the liturgical color of the day. This reflects the old custom of decorating homes and churches with colorful flowers on this day. In Poland, for example, and among the Ukrainians, Pentecost is sometimes called the “Green Holiday,” and in Germany the “Flower Feast.” In some Latin countries there is the term “Pascha Rosatum,” Latin words that mean “Feast of Roses.” And in Italy there is the name “Pascua Rossa,” meaning “Red Pasch,” inspired by the red vestments worn on Pentecost.
Another traditional and familiar symbol of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit is the dove. This tradition is inspired by the gospel accounts of Christ’s baptism, telling us that “when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” Fire is certainly the other familiar Pentecost symbol, inspired by the report from the Acts of the Apostles that on the day of Pentecost the disciples were gathered together when “suddenly from up in the sky there came a noise like a strong, driving wind which was heard all through the house where they were seated. Tongues as of fire appeared which parted and came to rest on each of them. All were filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Medieval Christians liked to dramatize the Pentecost symbols of the dove and flames of fire. Historical accounts tell us, for example, that in France, when the priest intoned the words “Come, Holy Ghost,” trumpets would blow, signifying the violent wind of which the scriptures speak. In other countries choirboys would hiss, hum, make odd noises with wind instruments, and rattle their benches. Then from a hole in the wall above, called “The Holy Ghost Hole,” a great swinging disk with a beautiful image of a dove would descend, and remain suspended above the middle of the church. From the same opening in the wall would follow a shower of flowers, representing the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and water symbolizing baptism. In the thirteenth century, French cathedrals would release white pigeons inside the buildings, and drop roses from the Holy Ghost Hole. Some towns in central Europe even dropped pieces of burning straw, representing the flaming tongues of Pentecost. This custom eventually found disfavor, as more and more churches and worshipers caught fire, spiritually and literally.