Tag Archives: Advent

The spirit of Advent

 

In Advent we look with hope and expectation towards the celebration of Christ’s birth at Christmas and his second coming at the end of time. But we can also prepare for his daily coming into our soul in prayer and Holy Communion and his coming at the end of our life to welcome us into eternity. In this meditation we consider:

  • How much God loved us in taking our human nature in order to redeem us
  • How from the earliest centuries the Church has lived Advent as a season of penance
  • How in Advent we can struggle to improve in the same three areas as we do in Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving
  • How through this struggle we clean out the stable of our soul so that Our Lord finds it a more worthy dwelling place

Preparing for Christmas with Our Lady

Now that we are in Advent, we want to prepare well for Christmas. A good way to do this is by the hand of Our Lady. After all, she too prepared for the birth of Christ. In this meditation we consider nine lessons Our Lady gives us about how to prepare for this great feast:

  • Avoiding sin and going to confession
  • Docility to the will of God
  • Charity with others
  • Spreading joy
  • Presence of God
  • Not complaining about hardship
  • Penance
  • Contemplation and meditation
  • Bringing Christ to others

The spirit of Advent

A fundamental aspect of the hope and expectation with which we prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth in history and his second coming at the end of time is the spirit of penance. This is an aspect which is often overlooked. I recently answered a question on it in Catholic newspapers and here it is.

I know that Advent is a season of hope and expectation of the coming of Christ in history and at the end of time, but is it also a season of penance? We don’t hear much about this aspect, if indeed Advent is supposed to be a time of penance.

I agree that we don’t hear much about the penitential aspect of Advent, but we can be sure that it is still there in the mind of the Church.

This is seen most obviously in the colour purple, which is used for the vestments worn by the priest and for other decorations of the church. This colour is used in the two penitential seasons preceding the great feasts of the year: Lent preceding Easter and Advent preceding Christmas. On the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete, or Rejoice, Sunday, the colour may be rose, suggesting a lessening of the penitential aspect as we pass the halfway point in our Advent discipline.

Moreover, the Vatican’s Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (2002) says that Advent is 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).

Indeed, it has been traditional in the Church since the beginning to have days or seasons of penance as a way of preparing for the big feasts. The history of Advent bears this out. In the fifth century Pope St Leo the Great called for fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays in the weeks leading up to Christmas. In 581 the Synod of Mac in present-day France called for fasting on the Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from November 11, the feast of St Martin of Tours, up to and including Christmas Eve, December 24.
When it was first celebrated, Advent began six Sundays before Christmas. The number was reduced to four by Pope St Gregory the Great (591-604). Some Eastern Rite Catholic Churches and 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 forty days and is sometimes referred to as the Little Lent. It is lived as a penitential season, known as the Nativity Fast or sometimes St Philip’s Fast, although the penance required is not as strict as that for Lent. In the Melkite Catholic Church the fast now begins on 10 December.

During this season the strict Eastern tradition requires abstinence from all creatures with a backbone, including mammals, birds and fish, and from all products made from these creatures, including milk, cheese, yogurt and eggs. In some traditions only one meal is allowed each day and this cannot be eaten before noon.

So it is clear that Advent is traditionally a penitential season like Lent. It is understandable that this should be the case. If we are to pray “Come, Lord Jesus”, as the liturgy invites us to do, we should make our soul more worthy to receive him. Like the Prodigal Son, we come before God in humility saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Lk 15:21). This sense of unworthiness, which we rightly feel, leads to the desire to purify our soul from sin and the effects of sin by acts of penance. It is as if we are cleaning out the stable of our soul so that Our Lord can find it a more worthy dwelling place on Christmas Day when he comes. To this end it can be helpful to choose one or more of our usual Lenten penances to live during Advent. In this way we are reminded that we must deny ourselves in order to prepare well for Christmas.

In addition to acts of self-denial, it is good to make a greater effort in our spiritual life too through such acts as attending Mass more often, setting aside regular times for prayer, reading the Scriptures or some book about Advent or Christmas, etc. And of course we should practise more acts of charity and almsgiving, which are so much a part of the spirit of Christmas.

Also important in living this spirit of repentance is receiving the sacrament of Penance, the great sacrament of mercy and joy by which we are forgiven our sins by God. There can hardly be a “Happy Christmas” without being in the state of grace and being embraced by the Father.

The meaning of Advent

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.