The Season of Advent

The Season of Advent

In our modern culture, it is all too easy to forget that Christmas has not yet arrived. The celebrations seems to have already come by the end of November. Everywhere we go, shops are decorated with yuletide glee. We hear Christmas carols on the radio and see Christmas programming on television. By the time the feast itself comes around, some of us may have almost had enough of it. This premature (and often very secular) celebration of Christmas can obscure the beauty of the liturgical season which is now underway since Sunday 2nd December: Advent. Most Catholics know, in a very general way, that Advent is the traditional four-week period of preparation for the feast of the Nativity. We are familiar with Advent wreaths and Advent Calendars. The vestments and Mass change to violet, and so forth. But where does Advent come from? What is the spiritual significance of it for us as Catholics? How should we observe it?

In our modern culture, it is all too easy to forget that Christmas has not yet arrived. The celebrations seems to have already come by the end of November. Everywhere we go, shops are decorated with yuletide glee. We hear Christmas carols on the radio and see Christmas programming on television. By the time the feast itself comes around, some of us may have almost had enough of it. This premature (and often very secular) celebration of Christmas can obscure the beauty of the liturgical season which has now been underway for more than a week: Advent. Most Catholics know, in a very general way, that Advent is the traditional four-week period of preparation for the feast of the Nativity. We are familiar with Advent wreaths and Advent Calendars. The vestments and Mass change to violet, and so forth. But where does Advent come from? What is the spiritual significance of it for us as Catholics? How should we observe it?

Advent, which comes from the Latin word adventus meaning ‘coming’ (referring to the coming of Christ), has been observed in some form in the Latin Church since at least the 6th century, but there is some evidence to suggest that it existed even earlier . The great liturgists of Christian history have even reported a tradition that Saint Peter himself instituted the observance . Advent as we know it today, that is, a period covering four Sundays beginning on the Sunday closest to the Feast of Saint Andrew (November 30th), has existed for well over 1000 years.

In the same way that the season of Lent is intended as a season of penance and purification in preparation for the great feast of the Resurrection, Advent has always been a penitential period before the great feast of the Incarnation. Historically it was a time of abstinence and even fasting. Advent has never had quite the same austere character as Lent, however. There is a note of joy in the liturgical texts of the Season. An Alleluia is added to the ends of all the antiphons of the Divine Office, for example. As in Lent, the relics and flowers may disappear from the altar during this time, and the organ may go silent, but the music of the four Masses of Advent is suffused with joy. The reason is that we are preparing for the coming of the Lord.

But which coming are we speaking of? The obvious answer is his coming at Christmas: the mystery of God coming into this world through the Incarnation in the Person of Jesus Christ. We prepare to celebrate the moment when the Almighty humbled himself and took on our human nature in order to save us from the slavery of sin and death. The Messiah, the long awaited Saviour of Israel, was born in a stable at Bethlehem, and it is principally the celebration of this ‘advent of the Lord’ for which we prepare during these four weeks.

There is, however, another that is too often neglected, another coming of the Lord which the texts of the Liturgy during this time mention abundantly: his coming at the end of time in glory. Yes, it may seem strange to us to think of the season of Advent as a time for reflecting on the Second Coming, on the Last Judgment, on the choice we all face between Heaven and Hell. But if we look closely, it is clear that this is the Church’s intention. Consider only the readings at Mass during this time. The Gospel of the last Sunday after Pentecost and the Gospel of the first Sunday of Advent are very similar. Both present our Lord speaking of the things that will happen at the end of the world, and about him own triumphant return.

The message of the other texts is very clear: Get ready. In the Epistle for the first Sunday of Advent, St. Paul exhorts us to a change of heart in preparation for the coming of the Saviour: ‘Brethren, now is the hour for us to rise from sleep, for our Salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night has passed and the day is at hand. Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.’ Now is the time to repent, to get ready for the coming of the Lord, or even the end of our own lives. There is always less time than we think. Our Lord Jesus Christ came once in meekness and humility, but the day is coming when he will return in power and Majesty, as the Saviour, of course, but also as the judge of the human race.

We will celebrate the first coming of Our Lord in just a few short weeks. Let use this time to prepare our hearts to receive him, and to be ready for his second coming. It is no coincidence that the Church considers the season of Advent to be the beginning of the new Liturgical year. It is an opportunity for us to renew or Christian lives. During this time, we should make a good confession, and ask the Lord to remove those things from our lives which are not in perfect conformity with his will. Most of all, we should ‘abound in Hope’, as Saint Paul says waiting with joy and trusting in the power of grace to help us become the Saints that God wants us to be.