By Aidan McIntosh, Catholic University of America
Welcome to Advent Reflections at Clarifying Catholicism! Throughout this season of Advent, we will be posting a variety of reflections from our writers on all different topics concerning this preparational time for the Coming of our Lord. We hope you enjoy! If you would like to commission an article on a specific topic, please head to the Contact Page.
“But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!” Then he said: Listen, house of David! Is it not enough that you weary human beings? Must you also weary my God?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel.” (Isaiah 7:12-14)
The end of the year and that clustered stretch of time between late November and Christmas is one of great excitement in the secular world for many. While it is certainly one of the busiest and perhaps hardest times of the year, as shopping for gifts, navigating through crowded malls, travelling and making arrangements with family and friends dominates our ‘free time’, it is one of the most rewarding. Getting time off from work and/or school is always welcome, but connecting with relatives and giving and receiving gifts from your loved ones always makes the cold and, often, dreary winter more purposeful and eventful – not to mention the endless array of desserts and eggnog. Yet, there is obviously a major religious background to Christmas that permeates our culture, regardless of how secularized it is, and there is more excitement than what meets the eye and our wallets: the liturgical season of Advent.
“Come, let us worship the Lord, the King who is to come” reads the Antiphon for Lauds (Morning Prayer) on the first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday closest to the Feast Day of St. Andrew the Apostle, directing the faithful to celebrate and worship the great Lord in His Incarnation. The name ‘Advent’ derives from the Latin adventus, which means ‘arrival’ or ‘coming’; this comes from the Greek parousia, meaning the same thing. In the classical context, the words signaled the arrival of an emperor into a city and the subsequent celebration and glory. However, in the days of Augustus, a new king arrived in the flesh: Jesus Christ.
The word parousia is found many different times in the New Testament, in its Greek manuscripts, and is generally used in anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ. This leads us to one meaning of the season of Advent: preparation of the faithful for the Second Coming of Christ. But as the hymns and readings direct our ears towards, we can see another important message for the faithful: to meditate and pray with the Incarnation, the coming of God into flesh in Jesus Christ.
In the Catholic Church, we celebrate Advent for those two reasons – the celebration of Christ’s arrival in the flesh, and thus His nativity, and in preparation for the Second Coming in eschatology – this is a liturgical tradition from the early Church. Saint Martin of Tours was influential in his sainthood to the development of Advent. St. Martin’s feast day on November 11th was celebrated with great festivity, documented like a carnival and making him a widely-venerated saint in the Middle Ages.
The first documented form of a pre-Christmas preparation is St. Martin’s Lent, from ‘Martinmas’ to Christmas. While we see Advent and Lent as two different seasons, St. Martin’s Lent was a time dedicated to penance and fasting, albeit to a less severe extent than Lent’s preparation for Easter. St. Gregory of Tours, writing in the 6th century, recalled that St. Perpetuus declared a fast three times a week between Martinmas and Christmas in the late 5th century in Tours, France. In the 6th century, this practice was codified to a greater extent across France’s faithful – including monks and laity – and setting forty days of penance and fasting into ecclesastical law. There is not much scholarship on the history of Advent and even the celebration of Christmas, unfortunately, but we do know that its origins appear to be in post-Nicene France and this penitential practice before Christmas spread to other parts of Europe from France. Its meanings and practices and legal perimeters fluctuated throughout the Church’s history.
As always, it is important to look at the traditional and more recent commentary on this great liturgical season. Dom Gueranger, a 19th century French abbot and Servant of God, writes, “The holy Church, therefore, during Advent, awaits in tears and with ardour the arrival of her Jesus in His first coming. For this, she borrows the fervid expressions of the prophets, to which she joins her own supplications. These longings for the Messias expressed by the Church, are not a mere commemoration of the desires of the ancient Jewish people; they have a reality and efficacy of their own, an influence in the great act of God’s munificence, whereby He gave us His own Son”.
The Church explains in Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy that Advent has a trifold function for the faithful: waiting, conversion, and hope. The faithful wait for the Second Coming of Christ, fulfilling the Book of Revelation to St. John, and keep their faith in His Incarnation. Conversion – while usually interpreted today as one’s joining of the Church – refers to the conversion of heart as the Pope cites St. John the Baptist’s prophetic message, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. The faithful have a joyful hope in the salvation brought by Christ’s conquest over sin and death, being fulfilled and perfected in the Second Coming and His final judgement.
Advent should be seen and celebrated as a time of excitement – what Christian could not be excited about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ? – but also one of penance that was emphasized in St. Martin’s Lent and other traditional manifestations of the season. Our brothers and sisters practicing in the Eastern Catholic rites and the Eastern Orthodoxy celebrate the Nativity Fast, a longer and, you guessed it, penitential season that is a more traditional and sacrificial period of time. In the west, the commercialization and secularization (the two go hand-in-hand) of the Christmas season have not exactly helped the faithful understand the history and purpose behind Lent. The domestic church and the preaching and teaching of priests and religious can help change this, however.
The Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent, from Mark 13:33-37, should direct the heart and mind towards the Second Coming and repentance. Simply put, we do not know when the Second Coming will happen and we could perish at any time, but He commands us all to “Watch!”. The exclamation mark is important here, because Jesus instructs His followers throughout the Gospels but rarely sounds so directing and authoritative as He does here. The Compline (Night Prayer) in the Breviary often recites 1 Peter 5:8-9: “Stay sober and alert. Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith”. Christ has already won the battle of good versus evil, but it is up to us to be steadfast in our faith and always prepare in excitement and joyful hope for the Second Coming.
So repentance and fasting are important during Advent, but what about other practices like Advent Wreaths and pretty candles and calendars with chocolates in them? These are fun Advent practices, of course, and this is a less penitential season than Lent focused on the Light that is Christ. While repentance should bring us closer to God in preparation for the great celebrations of Christmas, there are private devotionals that also aid us in our entrance into the kingdom of God. This is subjective to each believer, but common practices include a daily Rosary, praying the liturgy of the hours, attending Daily Mass and Confession more often, and giving thanks and love to our brothers and sisters. We give gifts during Christmas, but we have 3-4 weeks before where we can express a more profound and rich gift of love in our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is a fun time of year for many, but not universally. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a depressive disorder that typically comes during the winter, probably due to the reduction in light during the day. Even for people not affected by this, there is a common sense of gloom and sadness with shorter and colder days. Families who aren’t comfortable with their wealth suffer heavily as the idea of gift-giving, Christmas trees and even putting food on the tables becomes worrisome. People who have abusive and divided families, or perhaps no family at all, do not fare well. If you have positive connotations about Christmas that associate it with family and love, you should thank God for that blessing and privilege, because this is unfortunately not how it is for everyone.
What’s the point of me saying that? To show the importance of love and fellowship as gifts of the Holy Spirit, firmly rooted in our Christian identity, during this time. Our preparation for the Second Coming and our celebration of the First Coming should not be privatized, and we should find excitement in almsgiving and expressing love, whether it’s by service in a food pantry, donating to a specific charity or even just giving an old friend, who may not be in the best condition, a call. Our faith is internal and shown externally; let us prepare for the Mass of Christ by converting our own hearts and minds away from sin and looking towards the Kingdom. Let us use the Light that shines in our own hearts to warm up those around us.
Biblegateway.com. “Parousia”. Encyclopedia of the Bible. https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/encyclopedia-of-the-bible/Parousia
Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. “Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy”. December 2001. http://www.vatican.edu/roman_curia/congregations/ccdds/documents/rc_con_ccdds_doc_20020513_vers-direttorio_en.html
Gregory of Tours. “History of the Franks”. Trans. Ernest Brehaut (extended selections), Records of Civilization 2, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1916). https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/gregory-hist.asp
Guéranger, Prosper. “The Liturgical Year: Volume 1, Advent”. Edited by Br. Hermenegild, trans. by Laurence Sherphard. Loreto Publications, 2013. https://sensusfidelium.us/the-liturgical-year-dom-prosper-gueranger/advent/
Saunders, Fr. William. “The Liturgical Season of Advent”. Catholic Education Resource Center. 2000. https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/the-liturgical-season-of-advent.html
Staudt, Jared. “St. Martin’s Day: The Feast that Began the Fast”. Building Catholic Culture. November 8, 2019. https://buildingcatholicculture.com/st-martins-day-the-feast-that-began-the-fast/