Advent: Fostering Expectation

Vitrail_Chartres_210209_18_brighterThe Catholic tradition generally extends the celebration of a major Feast long after the principal day. For Christmas this entails an Octave, the traditional 12 days, and even a Season. The period before a major feast is one of preparation, generally penitential in nature. Traditionally the Vigil of major feasts has been a day of abstinence and fasting (including Christmas Eve). Although some questions have emerged recently, there is no doubt that Advent began as a penitential period, originally a fast modeled after Lent. We can see its penitential nature liturgically in the absence of the Gloria and through the use of purple vestments. Advent is clearly a time of expectation, a looking forward to the coming of Christ, both at his birth and at his coming again.

The ever morphing secular celebration of Christmas, however, has created a pre-Christmas season, one in which the celebration begins far in advance. It has even become common for Catholic parishes and schools to have pre-Christmas parties, full of treats and Christmas carols. As this trend becomes more and more common, it is important for Catholics to be deliberate about keeping Advent as a distinct season, one of expectation and preparation, not of celebration. I will seek to provide a few suggestions for how this can be done.

The first element, which I think is most important, is to tune out the consumerism which dominates the month of December and if possible to avoid early celebration. If it is logistically necessary to celebrate together during Advent, I would recommend giving a specifically Advent flavor to the gathering. Some ways to do this would be to emphasize the liturgical colors of the Season (rather than red and green), to incorporate Advent prayer, and to exercise more simplicity in food and drink.

Second, I would recommend replacing Christmas music with hymns and carols rooted in the spirituality of Advent. Obviously there are the classics like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Alma Redemptoris Mater,” and “Creator of the Stars of Night,” which would be easy to sing together as a family or group. There are also good collections of music that can help us enter the Season, such as the new CD, Advent at Ephesus, from the Benedictine Sisters of Mary Queen of Apostles. There are also great works of classical music, such as J.S. Bach’s Advent Cantatas, the first part of Handel’s Messiah, and Charpentier’s O Antiphons. It is also possible to find many choral collections for Advent on CD.

Third, it is important to immerse ourselves in spiritual practices that will prepare us for Christ’s birth. One important way is to pray morning and evening prayer in the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours or using Magnificat. Another way is to practice lectio divina on important readings for Advent, such as Isaiah, passages of the Gospels, like those related to John the Baptist and Christ’s coming, and the book of Revelation. One way to learn more about Advent and to profit from reflections as it progresses is to read Ven. Dom Guéranger’s The Liturgical Year on Advent. Here is a short selection of his meditation:

You, who have had Him within you without knowing Him, and have possessed Him without relishing the sweetness of His presence, open your hearts to welcome Him, this time, with more care and love…. Make room for the divine Infant, for He desires to grow within your soul. The time of His coming is close at hand: let your heart, then, be on the watch; and lest you should slumber when He arrives, watch and pray, yea, sing.

Christopher Blum also has recently made another important classic accessible in his translation of sermons of Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet. Meditations for Advent brings us into contact with one of Christendom’s great orators:

From the Gospel we learn the happy news of our salvation. Learning it, we rejoice in it. We behold God’s glory, and we glorify him. Let us rise to the high places, to the sublime part of ourselves; let us rise above ourselves to seek God in himself and, with the angels, to rejoice in his great glory (ch. 37, “The First Proclamation of the Gospel”).

There are also some more recent reflections on preparing for Christmas, such as from Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Advent Reflections: Come Lord Jesus, and Edward Sri, The Advent of Christ: Scripture Reflections to Prepare for Christmas.

We are all familiar with the Advent wreath, but a newer practice has emerged in the Jesse tree, drawing upon the prophecy of Isaiah: “a shoot will spring forth from the stump of Jesse” (Is 11:1). The Middle Ages produced many beautiful images of the shoot springing forth with Christ at the summit, such as in the stained glass of Chartres Cathedral. The practice has emerged of creating a small tree, using a tree branch, with ornaments placed on the tree each day with a complementary reading of Scripture. The readings present the progression of salvation history, especially toward the expectation of the Messiah, and then match up with the O Antiphons later in the Season. This is a great alternative to putting up the Christmas tree too early!

The expectation of Advent is not a putting away the thought of Christ’s coming, but rather deliberately preparing for it. Nothing symbolizes this better than the empty crèche. Many families have adopted the practice of preparing the manger for the baby Jesus by placing straw within it every time that a good deed is done. The placing of the baby within the manger on Christmas Eve becomes a big deal when this practice is followed. I was able to spend one Christmas in Spain and appreciated the emphasis there on placing the baby Jesus in the manger and then allowing everyone to reverence Him and even drawing Him into the celebration following Mass.

Finally, one crucial practice that occurs during Advent, which needs to be recovered, is the celebration of St. Nicholas Day. It commemorates the patron saint of children and at one point was a major celebration in Christendom (replete with boys dressing up as bishops). The stockings/shoes are meant to come out on this day and only through a confusion became associated with Christmas. Santa Clause is the invention of America imitating the celebration of St. Nicholas by the earlier Dutch settlers, approaching its present form in 1822 through the poem, “The Night before Christmas.” It is time to oppose Santa Claus’s dominance of Christ’s birthday and to reassert the celebration of St. Nichols in early December, the 6th to be precise.

As culture becomes more and more secular, we need to be more deliberate about making our lives centered on the faith. Celebrating Advent faithfully and postponing the celebration of Christmas to the proper time is a powerful witness to the faith. As everyone else quietly returns to their normal routines immediately after Christmas, we have an opportunity to draw people into that time of celebration and festivity. If we withdraw from distractions, we will be able to enter the Christmas season well prepared not only for Christ’s birth into the world, but also into our lives. Let us eagerly expect Christ this Advent: “Behold, I am coming soon!” (Rev. 22: 12).

image: Tree of Jesse, Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres/Wikimedia Commons

R. Jared Staudt


R. Jared Staudt works in the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of Denver. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University in Florida. Staudt served previously as a director of religious education in two parishes, taught at the Augustine Institute and the University of Mary, and served as co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.

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  • Pamela

    Thank you for this much needed reminder, as we are already surrounded by the sights and sounds of Christmas at least a month before Thanksgiving! The Salvation Army bell ringers have been in front of our local supermarket for two weeks already…several neighbors have already put up their Christmas decorations…every store and restaurant has decked its halls…TV and radio are blaring Christmas commercials and music … it’s very difficult to achieve the “waiting” mode when the secular world has already fast-forwarded to its version of Christmas!

  • Casey Truelove

    Thank you, Dr. Staudt! This kind of article too often lacks good practical applications. You have given us some good suggestions.

    Another Advent celebration that we could “bring back” is the winter Ember Days (along with the Spring, Summer, and Fall Ember Days, of course).

  • Andrew Batten

    The flip side of beginning Christmas too early is ending it too soon. I am constantly astonished by the number of people–even devout Christians–who have no idea that the 12 Days of Christmas begin, not end, on December 25. Lights, carols, Nativity scene and tree should all remain up until the Feast of the Epiphany. It also fills a human need–I don’t “need” Christmas in mid-November the way I do in the cold, dark days at year’s end.