Advent is a paradoxical season in the liturgical calendar. The Gospel from the first Sunday of Advent (Lk 21:25-28, 34-36) makes this clear. We are looking back at something that has not yet occurred, while at the same time looking forward to something that has already happened.
The new year of the liturgical calendar begins on the first Sunday of Advent, four Sundays before Christmas. But Advent is about more than just Christmas. Liturgically we are also looking back at the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Feast of Christ the King – focused on the Second Coming in glory at the end of time – reminding ourselves that Christ will come again. This, even as we look forward to something that has already taken place, the Incarnation and birth of Jesus, which we celebrate at Christmas.
The hinge between Christmas and the Feast of Christ the King is the Easter Triduum, which celebrates the Last Supper, passion, death and resurrection of our Savior and our King. There on Calvary the wood of the manager becomes the wood of the Cross upon which the King of Kings is enthroned. The humble beginning and the humiliating end of Jesus' life are contrasted to His glorious Resurrection, Ascension and Second Coming. So the Advent season begins with the strains of "Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel," while at the same time the Church prays "Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!" as we wait in joyful hope for the coming again of our Savior, Jesus Christ, this time in glory.
The Great Prayers of Advent: Every Day, All Year
In the Mass readings from the Gospel of Luke during Advent we find three of the great prayers of the Church: the beginning of the Hail Mary on December 20th and 21st (Lk 1:28, 42, 43), the Magnificat or Canticle of Mary on December 22nd (Lk 1:46-55) and the Canticle of Zachariah on the 24th (Lk 1:68-77). The official Morning Prayer of the Church's Liturgy of the Hours ends daily with the Benedictus or Canticle of Zachariah and Evening Prayer ends daily with the Magnificat. Many of us were taught the Hail Mary at such an early age that we cannot even remember when we memorized it.
A fourth great prayer of the Church from Luke's infancy narrative is in the Gospel for the Feast of the Holy Family, the first Sunday after Christmas. There is the Nunc Dimittis or Canticle of Simeon (Lk 2:29-32), which is prayed daily at the end of Night Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours.
What we can learn from Advent, whether we are looking back at the birth of Christ or forward to His second coming, is that we should do so with a prayerful sense of expectant joy and grateful thanksgiving for all that our Savior has done, is doing and will do for us.
Zachariah, Mary and Simeon show us the way and the Church recommends we follow.
Morning Prayer: The Canticle of Zachariah (Benedictus)
Blessed be the Lord, The god of Israel;
He has come to His people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior,
Born of the house of His servant David.
Through His holy prophets He promised of old
That He would save us from our enemies,
From the hands of all who hate us.
This was the oath He swore to our father Abraham:
To set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship Him without fear,
Holy and righteous in His sight all the days of our lives.
You, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
For you will go before the Lord to prepare His way.
To give His people knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
The dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
And to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Evening Prayer: The Canticle of Mary (The Magnificat)
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
For He has looked with favor on His lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
The Almighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.
He has mercy on those who fear Him
In every generation.
He has shown the strength of His arm,
He has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
And has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of His servant Israel
For He remembered His promise of mercy,
The promise He made to our fathers,
To Abraham and his children forever.
Night Prayer: The Canticle of Simeon (The Nunc Dimittis)
Lord now You let Your servant go in peace;
Your word has been fulfilled:
My own eyes have seen the salvation
Which You have prepared in the sight of every people:
A light to reveal You to the nations
And the glory of Your people Israel.