Advent can come as a surprise to us sometimes, beginning right after the busy Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends. It’s not unlike the surprise of Mary when she received news that she was pregnant with Jesus. Like her, we take the season of Advent as a time for pause, reflection, and preparation for the gift of God’s love coming to us through the baby Jesus.
The historic origin of Advent is not for certain; no evidence exists around the feast of the Nativity of the Lord before the end of the fourth century.
Several homilies and synods made mention of a specific liturgical time before Christmas, but no rule existed until a note on the Mass parts appeared during the time of Pope St. Gregory VII from 1073-1085.
Much like a Lenten period of fasting and sacrifice, the early Church urged Christians to dedicate this time to readying themselves for Christ. Their practices remind us that we are also called to be attentive to the message of repentance and the end times. This may seem unexpected considering the extravagant ways we eat, shop, celebrate, and rejoice as Christmas approaches!
The four weeks of Advent are popularly considered to symbolize the four thousand years of darkness before the coming of Christ. We set up Nativity scenes, light Advent candles, and decorate wreaths in our homes to signify Christ’s presence coming in the darkness of sin and suffering. Four candles adorn an Advent wreath, one for each week. A fifth candle is sometimes placed in the center for the beginning of the Christmas season.
Advent colors are worn by the priests and deacons and decorate the church. They are represented in the candles that surround the Advent wreath:
Violet: royalty, repentance, and fasting (First, Second, and Fourth Week of Advent)
Rose: abundant joy (Third Week of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday, joy in Latin)
White: light and purity (Christ Candle, center candle completes the season and begins Christmas)
During Advent there are three prevalent themes we see as we wait patiently for the coming of Christ. We long for the Messiah, are urged to be alert for Jesus’ Second Coming, and meditate on Christ’s presence in our lives now. The Scripture readings for the four weeks of Advent and the Liturgy of the Hours revolve around the first two of these themes. They encourage proper preparation, point to the grace and humility of Mary, show us how to adore God in the Incarnation, and recognize the glory of Jesus and how he frees us from sin and ingratitude. We hear from the prophet Isaiah and are drawn to the compelling message of John the Baptist in the Gospels.
It is important to consider how we can grow in spiritual wholeness during such a busy commercial season. Take time for silence and reflection each day with Scripture, a devotional prayer, or with an Advent calendar. Dwell with the scene of the Nativity. What is it like to imagine the journey of Mary and Joseph and to be with them as the baby Jesus comes into the world? St. Ignatius of Loyola had a deep reverence for the Nativity scene, as we see in the Spiritual Exercises. Consider praying with saints like him, with the Liturgy of the Hours, or with the O Antiphons the last week before Christmas. A prayerful journey with the Holy Family and the Church throughout Advent will lead to gifts of gratitude and joy when we enter the Christmas Season.