by Russell Pollitt SJ
A few weeks ago, I noticed many shops displaying Christmas decorations and some playing Christmas carols. It was in mid-November. By the time Christmas arrives, besides being out of pocket, we will have heard weeks of Christmas carols. I think this cheapens the currency but also negates a beautiful season in the Church’s liturgical year, the season of Advent.
Advent (“ad-venire” in Latin or “to come to”) is the season encompassing the four weeks leading up to the celebration of Christmas. The First Sunday of Advent is also the beginning of a new liturgical year for the Church. In our Christian calendar, the onset of Advent is the “new year” and not the 1 January which marks the new year in our secular society.
The Advent season is a time of preparation that directs our hearts and minds to Christ’s second coming at the end of time. It also is a celebration of the anniversary of Jesus’ birth at Christmas.
People have, for a long time, been fascinated by the promise of Jesus that he will return. Our Advent readings call us to be alert and ready, not weighed down and distracted by the world’s cares. They invite us not to waste time speculating on the exact time and date that Jesus will return. Instead, they try to focus on living, more authentically, the life that Jesus came to show us in his human birth. Advent invites us to wait, prepare, quieten down and focus our hearts on the immensity of a God who chooses to become one of us and live with us.
The liturgical colour for Advent, like Lent, is purple. Many ask why they are the same colour if the character of the two seasons differs (Advent is a season of hopeful waiting, and Lent is a season of repentance and conversion). We use purple because both seasons prepare us for great feast days. However, some parishes have decided to use a different shade of purple, sometimes even a dark blue, to highlight the unique character of Advent.
The book the priest uses on the altar – The Roman Missal – begins with the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). The GIRM notes some differences to the Mass that should be observed during the season of Advent. For instance, the priest wears violet or purple during Advent, except for the Third Sunday of Advent, which is called “Gaudete Sunday” or rejoicing Sunday – we rejoice that Christmas is getting nearer. On this Sunday, the GIRM (#346) says that rose-coloured vestments may be worn.
Aside from what the priest wears, other aesthetic changes in the Church can include a more modestly decorated altar – no flowers, for example – and the presence of the Advent wreath.
In the final days of Advent (17 December to 24 December), we focus on our immediate preparation for Christmas. In particular, the “O” Antiphons are sung during this period. These have been sung since at least the eighth century. They reveal a rich theology that uses ancient biblical imagery drawn from the messianic hopes of the Old Testament to proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfilment of Old Testament hopes, but of present ones as well.
If used well, Advent has the potential for us to get in touch with our deepest yearnings and grow spiritually. But, are we being invited to recover what Christmas really means and change our focus from shopping, spending and, perhaps, a frenzy of activity? Will you allow Advent to help you focus on relationships, hope and joy rather than being tempted to get caught up in the hijacking of the season? Or, have we carelessly lost Advent and, therefore, the real meaning of Christmas?