By Deacon Peter Freeman.
On Nov. 1, I saw a post on social media of a photograph that was split into two parts. On the left half of the photo were jack-o-lanterns, candy and other Halloween-related items. At the top of the left half of the photo were the words, “October 31.” On the right half of the photo was a decorated Christmas tree with presents under it, lights, wreaths, bows and other items associated with Christmas. At the top of the right half were the words, “November 1.” When I mentioned that we needed to have Advent before Christmas, the response I got from one social media “friend” was, “It’s all the same to me, Pete.” Should it be?
Advent has gotten lost as an important part of our Church year, which is not surprising since the last time the secular media seems to have recognized Christmas as the birth of our Lord and Savior was Linus reciting chapter 2, verses 8 through 14 from Luke’s Gospel in the 1965 TV cartoon, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Since then, the main focus of the “Christmas season” seems to be what’s the hottest thing to buy and what are the discounts on “black Friday?”
Really, I think I do understand how people are so eager to jump into celebrating Christmas. I don’t think it’s being greedy, necessarily. I think that there is so much negativity in the world today that people look forward to Christmas as that one remaining untouchable time of joy and happiness each year. Who doesn’t feel better about themselves and their family and friends at Christmastime?
Above all that though, is the undeniable and untouchable truth that what Christmas really means is that God came to live among us in the person of his Son — Jesus Christ. The Living Word came to us so that he could be our salvation from sin and death. On Christmas, we celebrate Christ’s first coming.
Advent is the time before Christmas that we prepare to welcome our Savior. Advent is the four weeks prior to Christmas that ends on Christmas Eve. During this time, through prayer, we prepare our hearts and minds to welcome Christ into our world. Advent is the beginning of a new Church liturgical year. So it is also fitting to spend this time of preparation for Christ’s coming so we can follow him and live our journey with him the rest of the year.
While not stressed as much as during Lent, Advent is also a time of penance and reconciliation. We want to welcome and receive our Lord and Savior with souls as pure and holy as we possibly can through the sacrament of penance and, perhaps even abstinence or fasting.
There are several ways to observe and celebrate Advent. The most common and popular way is with the tradition of the Advent wreath. The Advent wreath has four candles, three purple and one pink (or rose). The first two weeks, purple candles are lit on Sundays, and each day that week. The first candle represents hope and the second represents love. On the third week, the pink or rose candle is lit. This candle, also called Mary’s candle, represents joy. The third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday. This Sunday signifies that Christmas is near. The fourth week’s purple candle represents peace. Lighting the candles of the Advent wreath is a great family tradition to have at dinnertime, accompanied by a prayer or Scripture reading.
Some parishes will also celebrate the last seven days of Advent (December 17-23 — known as the “O Antiphons” — with solemn vespers on those days. Vespers is the Evening Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours and the antiphons that precede the Gospel Canticle on the last seven days of Advent are known as the “O Antiphons.” Each “O Antiphon” refers to a name for the Lord. They are: O Wisdom (Sapientia), O Lord (Adonai), O Root of Jesse (Radix Jesse), O Key of David (Clavis David), O Radiant Dawn (Oriens), O King of Nations (Rex Gentium) and O Emmanuel. If your parish holds solemn vespers on these days, I suggest you make an effort to attend. There is no better way to get ready for Christmas in that final week.
Lastly, don’t forget to receive the sacrament of penance during Advent — maybe more than once! Remember that Advent is also a time of repentance and a time for us to prepare ourselves spiritually to receive the newborn Jesus into our lives.
I would be naïve to think that we are not going to purchase presents, decorate, bake, etc., in preparation for Christmas Day. However, as Catholics, let’s try to remember that the Christmas season really begins on Christmas Eve and try to hold off on the partying until then. Yes, shop, decorate, bake and whatever else you do to prepare. But, spend time immersed in Advent and your spiritual preparation as well.
To my social media “friend” I would say: Advent and Christmas are not “all the same.” Separate them and enjoy the graces and benefits of celebrating both.
Deacon Peter Freeman is director of the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy and assistant director of the Office of Catechesis and Faith Formation. He is assigned to St. Philip Parish, Melbourne.