Renewing the Mystery of Advent, Part One: The Meaning of Advent

Once again Advent is upon us.  Our churches will be draped in purple; our priests will wear violet vestments; the Advent wreath will be blessed and lit; "O come, O come Emmanuel" will be sung as we begin the time of preparation for our Lord's coming.

Once again Advent is upon us.  Our lives will be swept up in a whirlwind of chaos; we will have to find that perfect present; we will attend any number of pre-Christmas Christmas parties.  Our ears will be bombarded with Christmas songs everywhere we go as we begin a three week celebration of Our Lord and Savior's birth.

Which of these images come closer to our experience of Advent?  For most of us, the second scenario is probably closer to reality.  For most of us, Advent is lived as a time of early celebration of Christmas rather than as spiritual preparation for Christmas.  We do not need to celebrate Christmas early because the Church gives us the Octave of Christmas, the Church's eight day celebration of Christmas.  However, all too often, Advent becomes a time for pre-Christmas Christmas celebrations and no one has the energy for eight days of celebration when Christmas comes.  When that happens, the distinctive purpose of the Advent season becomes lost and forgotten.  Of course, some of us will have office parties and family events that take place before Christmas and it would be in poor taste not to participate.  Yet, with some effort, we can reclaim the true meaning of Advent. 

The late Pope John Paul II shows the way:  Advent is a period of intense training that directs us decisively to the One who has already come, who will come, and who continuously comes.  In this series of articles and videos, we Dominican Friars will offer spiritual and practical insights with the hope that everyone will be able to live out Advent more intensely as a season of training for the coming of Christ.   

The First Part of Advent:  The End is Near?

As a period of intense preparation, Advent is divided into two parts.  The first part begins on the First Sunday and ends on December 16th, and the second part begins on December 17th and ends on December 24th.  This division is important for understanding the significance of Advent preparations.

Some of the scriptural readings from the Sundays of Advent, as well as the two Advent prefaces, will serve as guides to prepare us for the coming of our Lord-past, present, and future.  The preface is the prayer said or sung by the priest at Mass immediately before the congregation responds with the "Holy, Holy, Holy."  During Advent, we will primarily hear two prefaces, one for each of the two parts of the liturgical season.

 For the first part of Advent, the emphasis is on the Second Coming of the Lord.  The first Advent preface, used during the first part of Advent, recalls our Lord's first coming at His birth over two millennia ago, but more heavily stresses His Second Coming.  We are told that the Son of God humbled Himself to come among us as a man (Advent Preface I).  But as quickly as we remember the Christ who has already come, this first preface points to the Christ who will come again.  For, we watch for the day, hoping that the salvation promised us will be ours when Christ our Lord will come again in His glory (Advent Preface I).  By recalling the first coming of Christ, the coming that we will joyfully celebrate at Christmas, we gain confidence that Christ has not abandoned us but will come again.

From the earliest days, followers of Christ, like St. Paul, have watched for the Lord's Second Coming (see 1 Thes 1:10).  We know that the Lord did not come in glory during the lifetime of St. Paul.  Were St. Paul's preparations in vain?  Advent's first preface says that we are to watch for the day of Christ's coming in glory.  Will our preparations for the Second Coming be in vain?  Our efforts would not be in vain if we realize that in order to prepare our hearts to welcome the Lord . . . we must learn to recognize His presence in the events of daily life (JP II).  The first part of Advent calls us to watch for the coming of our Lord at every moment of our lives.  It is by recognizing Him who continuously comes in every aspect of our lives that we are drawn into deeper communion with our Lord who will come in glory. 

The readings for this First Sunday of Advent show us the way to recognize Him who continuously comes.  The Gospel of the First Sunday implores us:  Stay awake!  For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.  For at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come (Mt 24:42, 44).  We do not know the day or the hour, but the only way to watch for the Lord is by staying awake.  To be awake and watchful for the One who is to come means to be awake and watchful for the One who continuously comes.  In order to stay awake, we cannot live in darkness.  If we live in darkness, we will fall asleep and not recognize the Christ who continuously comes.  This darkness can only be dispelled with the Light of Christ which enables us to stay awake and recognize Him who continuously comes.  It is in this way that, in the second reading, St. Paul tells the Romans and us to throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy (Rom 13:12-13).  The Light of Christ becomes our armor with which we are able to throw off whatever works of darkness are in our lives so that we may live in the light.  By living in the light, we will be able to stay awake and see Him who continuously comes and be prepared to receive Him who will come again

The Second Part of Advent: The Novena of Christmas

The first part of Advent is a period of intense training in preparation for our Lord's Second Coming.  On December 17th, the Season of Advent changes its focus to the First Coming.  Our attention will shift from the One who is to come to the One who has already come in the flesh.  This second part of Advent is another period of intense training, but this time the focus is more directly on preparing our hearts and minds to celebrate Christmas.  Only nine days long, the second part of Advent is the Church's novena of preparation for Christmas. 

The second preface of Advent is used throughout the second part of Advent from December 17th until December 24th.  In preparing to celebrate the birth of Him who has already come in the flesh, we continually recall in the preface that his coming in the flesh was proclaimed by all the prophets (Advent Preface II).  The Scriptural themes will often coincide.  For example, the first reading from the Fourth Sunday of Advent calls upon the prophet Isaiah to provide a summary of all the Old Testament prophecies about the longed-for Messiah:  The Lord himself will give you this sign:  the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel (Is 7:14).  Indeed, the child to be born is the Christ-child, God-with-us, Emmanuel. 

Pope John Paul II reminds us that these nine days before Christmas are not just a preparation for commemorating the historical event of Christ's birth, which occurred some 2,000 years ago in a little village of Judea.  This celebration of the One who was proclaimed by the prophets, carried in the womb of his virgin mother, and made known by John the Baptist is the celebration of an event that changed human history (see Advent Preface II).  God became man so that man might become like God.  In the God who made himself man for us . . . we discover that we are precious and unique in the eyes of the Creator (Benedict XVI).  We discover that God our Father will never abandon us because His Son has become one of us. 

The second part of Advent prepares us to accept the transformative power of that first Christmas.  To those who open their heart to this "baby wrapped in swaddling clothes" and lying "in a manger" (Lk 2:12), He offers the possibility of seeing with new eyes the realities of every day (Benedict XVI).  Our celebration of Christmas is not a yearly birthday party for Jesus; it is the celebration of Him who once came in the flesh but who continuously comes.  At Christmas we celebrate the beginning of Christ's abiding presence in our lives even though His divinity came veiled in the flesh.  Christ's abiding presence becomes concrete for us in the Blessed Sacrament where His divinity is veiled under the appearance of bread and wine.   

A Practical Suggestion

We promised to offer not only theological but practical points for this period of intense training.  Now, there are a number of fine Advent traditions that can help individuals and families prepare.  There is the family Advent wreath, the displaying of a nativity scene without the Christ-child until Christmas, and various sorts of meditations that go with these.  Advent is a great time for individuals and families to start praying the Rosary — especially the Joyful Mysteries.  But when we keep in mind how busy everyone is during this season, there is one Advent practice in particular that we commend to everyone.  It is quick and easily carried out by even the busiest shoppers.

The method is to print out a copy of the two prefaces of Advent (they are available here as a .pdf file), and take just one minute a day to read and ponder the appropriate preface — personally praying the first preface during the first part of Advent and the second preface during the second part of Advent.  Those who want to make a greater effort to reclaim the meaning of Advent might consider taking a minute to read and meditate upon the appropriate preface before each and every trip to a mall, a store, or a pre-Christmas Christmas party.  In this way, the true meaning of Advent will remain with us even during this chaotic time of the year.

May the Light of Christ enable us to stay awake and to prepare this Advent for Christ's Second Coming.  Our preparations will not be in vain as we prepare for Christ's coming in glory by drawing closer to Him as He comes to us at every moment of our lives, especially in the Most Holy Eucharist.  Let us also prepare to celebrate His First Coming.  Let us get ready for the birth of the Christ-child, whose history-changing birth allows us to abide with Him until He comes again in glory.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage