It has become so difficult to celebrate Advent as a liturgical season distinct from Christmas that one sometimes wonders if it’s worth observing it at all. Already, at least by mid-November, the stores are full of Christmas decorations and ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas’ is playing constantly in the background. Although COVID-19 has put the kibosh on many of the usual December festivities, in years past, this month has been full of Christmas or holiday parties, and (I know from experience), you can’t find a Christmas tree anywhere on Christmas Eve. If you want one to decorate, you have to buy it now.
Historically, Advent has had a complex development, sometimes penitential in emphasis. Now, however, Roman Catholics observe Advent’s twofold character as “a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ’s first coming to us is remembered; [and] as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation” [Sacred Congregation of Rites, General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, (March 21, 1969, no. 39]. We recall the historical birth of Christ, but more importantly, the implications of that birth for human history, human life, and human destiny right now. We give thanks, for example, for Christ’s continual presence in his Church and in human hearts through grace, we seek to welcome him expectantly with joy each day, and we look forward to his return in glory.
Advent is not at all a time to pretend Emmanuel (God-with-us) has not yet come. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that “the coming of God’s Son to earth is an event of such immensity that God willed to prepare for it over centuries….[E]verything converge[s] on Christ: all the rituals and sacrifices, figures and symbols of the ‘First Covenant’” (no. 522). Through Israel’s prophets, the greatest of which was John the Baptist, God announced Christ’s coming and awakened in human hearts an expectation of this coming. “When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Saviour’s first coming the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor’s birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’” (no. 524). During Advent, we Christians “re-read and re-live the great events of salvation history in the ‘today’ of the liturgy” (CCC, 1095).
So, how can one focus on this when all around us is focussing on the ‘season of giving’? Here’s a list of suggestions, which I’m calling the ‘Twelve Doors to Christmas”:
- Pay close attention to the gospel readings in Advent (you can find daily readings here: http://ec2-34-245-7-114.eu-west-1.compute.amazonaws.com/. The First Sunday focuses on the Lord’s Second Coming at the end of time, not on his birth at Bethlehem. The Second and Third Sundays focus on John the Baptist. Only the Fourth Sunday recounts events that immediately precede the Lord’s birth.
- Learn about Israel’s prophets, especially Isaiah. The Old Testament readings (Hebrew Scriptures) remind us of the fulfillment of the Messianic Age yet to come. They speak of justice and mercy, peace and righteousness, joy and fulfillment. Learn more about our Jewish brothers and sisters who still await with longing the coming of the Messiah.
- Make a family Advent wreath and light its candles at family meals (you can use all white candles, if you like, or three purple and one rose; other countries use different colours). Use Jesse tree symbols at home, and read the Bible stories that go with each symbol. They tell the story of our salvation.
- The second readings from the New Testament exhort us to live in a way which pleases God. Advent can be a special time to take account of how we ourselves are living and to work for justice and peace in the world, in our families, and in all of our human relationships. Proclaim Christ by fostering dialogue with those who follow the world’s other major religions. Do what you can to heal family wounds, to care for others, and to work on your marriage so that Christmas can be an occasion of harmony and joy, rather than bitterness, division, and sorrow.
- While October and May have long been considered traditional months for Marian devotion, the season of Advent includes the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, and the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12. These liturgical feasts provide some of the solid foundation which should give shape to our private devotions.
- Meet the Mary of the Magnificat and ponder with her the coming of the Messiah. Pray Evening Prayer if you can, a special feature of which is the (singing of the) Magnificat.
- Throw off the yoke of Christmas debt before you take it on. Prepare instead for a Christmas which speaks of the liberation for you and yours Christ has come to bring. Consider giving a gift which can help to achieve justice and peace in our world (a donation to a suitable charity, for example), and feed the soul at the same time.
- Learn and come to appreciate the seasonal psalms for Advent, the ‘O antiphons’ (like those in ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’), sung between December 17 and December 24, and the large repertoire of Advent hymns.
- Plan to celebrate the full Christmas season, which begins with Evening Prayer on Christmas Eve and ends with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord which, in this upcoming liturgical year, falls on January 10, 2021.
- Buy your Christmas tree a little later this year so you can keep it up until January 10, 2021. If you use an artificial tree, delay putting it up until a little later in the Advent season. Choose a mild day to put up outdoor lights but hold off turning them on until it gets closer to Christmas.
- Dig out the Christmas music (find the traditional religious carols, not just the secular songs) for use during the Christmas season. If you can’t sing them, at least play Christmas carols that celebrate God-with-us at family gatherings throughout the entire Christmas season.
- Although it is difficult to know whether attending Church will be possible or not, due to COVID-19 and associated public health regulations, plan to at least become aware of all the celebrations included within the Christmas season. In the week after Christmas (the ‘Octave’ of Christmas), we celebrate the feasts of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, St. John the Evangelist (of the Fourth Gospel), the feast of the Holy Innocents, and the feast of the Holy Family, among others. Of course, the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God (the day on which we celebrate the World Day of Peace) is the Eighth day of the ‘Octave’. When it is possible to gather again for worship, consider also celebrating the Divine Liturgy in an Eastern Catholic Church near you, if there is one. This fulfills the Sunday obligation and expands one’s appreciation for the richness of the Catholic community.
It would be a shame to eliminate or ignore Advent before even sampling the season’s richness. We say, as a Christian community, that we cannot appreciate the full meaning of Christ’s Incarnation, celebrated at Christmas, unless we have also experienced the longing for salvation and the hope instilled by God’s saving deeds in the past, and the final consummation of the mystery of Christ at the End of Time. Is Advent worth keeping? Yes, indeed! It’s worth keeping in the Church’s liturgical calendar, and worth keeping in our hearts, too. May our worthy observance of Advent “remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy” (Opening Prayer, Second Sunday of Advent).