The Thanksgiving feasts are over and the countdown to Christmas starts now. But well before Thanksgiving dinner plans have been made, retail stores have stocked shelves with Christmas décor and holiday-themed TV ads have aired jolly tunes over images of brightly decorated Christmas trees and gifts. While secular culture often rushes forward to Christmas at full throttle, for Catholics, the four weeks preceding Christmas is the beginning of a new year focusing on meaningful reflection and spiritual preparation during Advent, before beginning the celebration of the Christmas season.
“Advent is a season in and of itself. Christmas is also a season in and of itself. They’re distinct. And I think that it points to the tension that we as Catholics live with when the culture is saying that it’s Christmas when it’s still Advent for us,” said Lesa Truxaw, director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese.
Advent is the first season of the liturgical year and, like Lent, is a penitential season in the Church.
“Each year we have the opportunity to start over. Christianity is a religion of second chances, new beginnings. We are always welcome to start again,” said Katie Dawson, director of Parish Faith Formation for the Diocese. “It’s a somewhat penitential season but not as deeply as Lent so it’s a time to reflect and to try and deepen that encounter.”
During Advent, the Church celebrates the “three comings of Christ” – the coming of Christ in Bethlehem, the future coming as Christ comes again in glory at the end of time and the coming of Christ today in the sacraments and life of the Church.
“Each year we revisit the significant themes and events in the life of Jesus and the life of the Church. This is a process of remembering and this remembering is a way that we are personally inserted into our history. So when we walk through the liturgical year, we are remembering these events as if we were personal witnesses,” said Dawson. “So Advent is an opportunity to contemplate on each of those events, allow ourselves to be affected and to be touched by the mystery of God incarnate in Jesus Immanuel and to pursue our personal encounter with Jesus in a new, fresh way.”
As with every season in the Church, the music, colors and readings change accordingly.
“The Church gives us something called the ‘O Antiphons’, which actually are part of our common hymn that we sing. Starting on Dec. 17 and on, we sing the O Antiphon,” said Truxaw. The antiphons usually begin with O Wisdom of Our God Most High, O Root of Jesse’s stem, O Emmanuel or O Leader of the House of Israel. “These are prayed as part of the Liturgy of the Hours even during the entrance antiphon. The significance of the change is that its scriptural, it helps us recognize titles or aspects of who Jesus is.”
Another change in the liturgy is the omission of the Gloria because of the penitential nature of the season.
The change in colors at the altar and in the celebrant’s vestments is immediately noticeable.
“During Advent, our liturgical season is violet because it’s a penitential season, a way to help us prepare for Christ coming by looking at where we’ve fallen short,” explained Truxaw.
Like Lent, most parishes will offer reconciliation services more frequently during Advent as a way for the faithful to spiritually prepare for the Christmas season.
Perhaps one of the items popularly connected with Advent is the wreath with three violet candles and a single rose candle. During the first Sunday of Advent, the wreath is blessed and from then on, one candle is lit for every week of Advent.
“It is now often in our churches and incorporated as part of the act of penitence at the very beginning of Mass, the Kyrie is part of it, when we recognize our own sinfulness and rely on God’s mercy,” explained Truxaw.
The single rose candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent, sometimes referred to as Gaudete Sunday. The priest will also wear rose-colored vestments. Gaudete Sunday is a joyful day because it marks the midpoint of the season of Advent and builds the anticipation of Christmas.
“I would suggest using real candles because you can see them getting smaller. Time is marked by the physicality of the candle. It helps us prepare and helps us anticipate and get excited,” said Truxaw.
Children can also experience the spirit of the Advent season through a variety of activities at their level.
“It’s a beautiful season for engaging children in the story, in the waiting, in the anticipation of the coming of the Messiah,” said Dawson. She recommends nativity plays, lighting the Advent wreath at home, Advent calendar and singing Advent songs. “All those things have so much potential impact on children’s imagination and help to engage them in this project of encountering Jesus.”