Q: Archbishop J, why do we celebrate Advent when everyone is celebrating Christmas?
The early celebration of Christmas is commercial. Merchants have realised that the season offers them a great financial boon so they exploit it and extend it for greater effect. Think about it: everyone gives presents! Exploiting the season for profit has become a norm, with Christmas trees and decorations emerging in October or November, and sometimes earlier.
With the commercialisation of Christmas we lose so much of Advent. Rather than being a season of depth and reflection where we draw closer to God, Advent becomes one frenetic activity after another.
We go from commercial activity to business at home, preparing the house with furniture and curtains etc. And with the proliferation of ‘pre-Christmas’ parties and events that keep us out late at night, we are tired and spent by the time Advent is over. We are happy it is over.
This year I urge you to celebrate Advent fully and consciously. It is a beautiful season of grace that deserves our full attention. If we live it fully, we will celebrate Christmas with more depth and focus. Remember, Jesus Christ is the reason for the season.
Advent is a liturgical season. Like Lent, Christmas and Easter, Advent has its own colour and rites and practices. It is a season of active waiting on the coming of the Lord. It marks the beginning of the liturgical year and foreshadows the great expectation that the human family felt at the end of the Old Testament as it waited for the coming of the Messiah.
The experience of the full pain and horror of our sin—a sickness in need of redemption—is part of the Advent experience. It is a season of hope. Hope because we need the Saviour and wait joyfully for His coming.
The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary says: “The word ‘advent’ is taken from the Latin adventus, ‘coming’, a term often taken to designate either the Incarnation of Christ or the Parousia, his second coming. In the Church, it designates the season immediately preceding Christmas; in the Western church it comprises the four Sundays prior to Christmas, whereas in the Eastern churches it begins in mid-November.”
The Roman Missal points us to the true nature of the season: “Advent has a twofold character, for it is a time of preparation for the Solemnities of Christmas, in which the first coming of the Son of God to humanity is remembered, and likewise a time when, by remembrance of this, minds and hearts are led to look forward to Christ’s second coming at the end of time. For these two reasons, Advent is a period of devout and expectant delight.”
The two comings of Christ are at the heart of the celebration. So, on one hand, we are reflecting on the first Christmas when Christ came as a child in a stable. We ponder the mystery of a world waiting for God and we too wait with great hope and expectation as we relive that first Christmas.
On the other hand, we ponder the second coming of Christ when He will come to judge the living and the dead. We anticipate the day when we will meet Him and either in joy or fear will bow before His majestic presence. As we ponder the second coming we also consider our accountability to Christ for the graces we were given.
Knowing Christ as Saviour, allows us to move from fear to hope and expectation. Hope because of Christ’s incredible mercy, expectation because of the beauty and joy of the kingdom that He has come to establish.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this explicit. It states: “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. By celebrating the precursor’s birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’” (524).
The season calls us not only to anticipate the coming of the Saviour: it also gives us the royal road on which we must walk in preparation for His coming—humility. Like John the Baptist who prepared for His first coming, we must prepare others for His second coming. Advent is the time to focus on this preparation.
The Scripture readings for Advent are among the most beautiful of any liturgical season. To spend some time each day pondering the readings will bear immense spiritual benefits.
The readings speak of longing and expectation, and betrayal and failure. But, above all, hope. Hope because we can—despite our failure and brokenness—trust in a Saviour to redeem us.
This year make a decision to live Advent fully. Wait till mid-December to put up the tree and lights and crèche. Wait till December 16 to play the famous Christmas carols and decorate the house.
The Church’s liturgy, from December 17 to 24, although still within the season of Advent, prepares us more directly for celebrating the Lord’s birth. During these eight days reflect on the special readings every day. In the Evening Prayer of the Church the Magnificat antiphon hails the coming King. Read and ponder the antiphon.
If you need to decorate your house, buy the four Advent candles, place them in a wreath and light the appropriate candle at the start of each week to mark the journey through the four weeks of this season of incredible grace.
Buy an Advent Calendar for the children. Each day gather as a family and open the doors to the mystery we celebrate. Renewal begins by living our liturgical season fully. Let us restrain ourselves this year; share in the preparation of the Lord’s first coming and look joyfully to his second coming.
Key message: Advent is a season in its own right, let us live it fully. Let us wait till the Joyful Sunday, December 16, to decorate and prepare our houses for Christmas.
Action Step: Let us use the season of Advent as a time of waiting patiently on the Lord. Read the Mass readings every day. If you can attend Mass every day, that will be even better. Have an Advent wreath at home and light the candles every day. Have an Advent Calendar that you open each day as a family.
Scripture Reading: Luke 3:4–6