November 30, 2012


Advent: Preparing for Christmas

From all appearances, we are now in the Christmas season. Christmas lights are up all around our cities and in rural areas and, with December arriving on Saturday, Christmas celebrations are ready to begin in earnest. Of course, the stores have already had their Christmas decorations up for a long time.

Soon Christmas parties will begin, people will mail their Christmas cards, and they will start to wish one another a “merry Christmas”—unless that sounds too religious in our secular society and they substitute “happy holidays.”

But what happened to Advent? Sunday is the first day of the Advent season, not the Christmas season. Doesn’t anyone observe Advent any more?

Yes, the Catholic Church, among others, does. It doesn’t rush into the season as our secular society does. Rather, it prepares for the season of Christmas.

Then it observes the Christmas season through the feast of Epiphany and until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord celebrated on Jan. 13 in 2013. That is long after most people have taken down their Christmas tree, stashed away their Christmas decorations and stopped listening to Christmas music.

It appears, then, that we have two Christmas celebrations—the secular celebration that is now in full swing and the religious celebration that will begin on Dec. 24. There is nothing wrong with participating in the secular celebrations as long as we remember the religious significance of Christmas as the birth of our Savior.

As Christians, though, we should take advantage of the season of Advent to prepare for Christmas.

Advent has a twofold character for Christians. It is both a season meant to prepare us for Christmas when Christ’s first coming to us is commemorated, and a season when we should direct our minds and hearts to await Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. It is, therefore, a period for devout and joyful expectation.

Historically, some period of preparation for Christmas began at least as far back as the mid-fourth century, but the type of celebration and its duration have varied. In some places, the season was longer than it is today. In Gaul (France), it began on the feast of St. Martin of Tours, on Nov. 11—while in other places it was rather brief.

Even today, the length of the season varies. The Ambrosian Rite, one of the Catholic Church’s non-Roman rites, exists in and around Milan, Italy, and is named after St. Ambrose, archbishop of Milan from 374 to 397. Its Advent lasts six weeks. On the other hand, most of the Catholic Church’s Eastern rites observe only a short “pre-feast” period before Christmas.

For those of us who belong to the Latin rite of the Catholic Church, this year’s Advent is nearly as short as it is possible for it to be—three weeks and two days.

Advent was sometimes observed like Lent, as a time of penance, again mainly in Gaul. In 11th-century Scotland, St. Margaret and her husband, King Malcolm, observed “two Lents,” one before Christmas and the other before Easter, with fasting and extra almsgiving. In most places today, the penitential aspect of Advent has been tempered by a joyful anticipation.

During the first part of Advent, until Dec. 16, that joyful anticipation is directed toward Christ’s Second Coming. The first Scripture reading during Masses is usually from the prophet Isaiah while the Gospel readings show how Jesus fulfilled the prophetic promises. St. John the Baptist, with his emphasis on repentance, makes his appearance.

Beginning on Dec. 17, the Old Testament readings proclaim the most important Messianic prophesies while the Gospel readings describe the events immediately before the birth of Christ.

If you can’t get to Mass, we encourage you to read those scriptural readings during Advent. We list them in every issue.

One of the popular Advent devotions, in homes as well as in churches, is the Advent wreath. It is a circle of evergreens with four candles that are lighted successively in the weeks of Advent to symbolize the approaching celebration of the birth of Christ, the Light of the World.

As our society joyfully celebrates the secular season of Christmas, let us Catholics also use the season of Advent to prepare for the religious feast.

—John F. Fink

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