The season of Advent raises some interesting questions which I answered in my book Question Time 1. Here is the answer, question 140 in that book.
140. The meaning of Advent
I have always been somewhat confused about the meaning of Advent. I thought it was a season in which to prepare for Christmas but the readings for Mass on the first Sunday are more about the end of the world, not Christmas. Also, is it a season of penance like Lent?
Advent has a long history. Its name, both in Latin and English, means “coming” so that tells us something about the meaning of the season. It is a time to prepare for the coming of the Lord. It seems to have originated in Spain and Gaul around the end of the fourth century, at about the same time that the feast of Christmas began to be celebrated. It came to be celebrated in Rome around the second half of the sixth century.
Originally, it commemorated the long wait in the Old Testament for the coming of the Messiah, and it was thus a preparation for Christmas. Gradually it evolved into preparing also for Christ’s second coming at the end of the world. Today, the Church commemorates both comings in Advent. The focus on the first Sunday is the second coming of Christ at the end of time. Then the focus shifts to John the Baptist’s preaching in preparation for Christ’s public life, and finally, on the fourth Sunday, to Mary’s preparation for the birth of Christ.
These comings are related to each another. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “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” (cf. Rev 22:17; CCC 524).
With the first Sunday of Advent the Church begins the new liturgical year. There is thus a certain continuity between the end of the liturgical year, when the readings focus on the end of time with the celebration of the feast of Christ the King, and the beginning of the liturgical year, when we again prepare for Christ’s second coming. Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and always has four Sundays. Nonetheless, its length varies, depending on the day of the week on which Christmas falls.
When Advent was first celebrated in the Church it had six Sundays before Christmas. The number was reduced to four by Pope St Gregory the Great (591-604). The Eastern Orthodox Churches still celebrate a longer Advent, beginning on November 15, the day after they celebrate the feast of the Apostle Philip. Thus for them Advent, like Lent, has 40 days. It is lived as a penitential season, sometimes called St Philip’s Fast, although the penance required is not as strict as that for Lent.
In the Catholic Church, the predominant spirit of Advent is one of expectation, of hope. The Vatican’s General Norms of the Liturgical Year and Calendar, issued in 1969, says that Advent is “a period for devout and joyful expectation”. Nonetheless, the 2002 Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy adds that Advent is also a time of “conversion, to which the Liturgy at this time often refers, quoting the prophets, especially John the Baptist, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Mt 3:2; n. 96).
Repentance, in the sense of sorrow for sin, conversion of heart and acts of penance, is always an appropriate way to prepare for a great celebration. The Church has traditionally preceded the great feast days with days of penance, as in the 40 days of Lent in preparation for Easter. The liturgical colour of violet used during the Advent season reminds us of this penitential aspect. On the third Sunday, Gaudete, or “Rejoice”, Sunday, the colour may be rose, suggesting a lessening of the penitential aspect as Christmas approaches.
We can consider that through our conversion and penance, including the celebration of the sacrament of Reconciliation, we are cleaning out the stable of our hearts so that Jesus can find a clean resting place in them.