eginning the Church’s liturgical year, Advent (from, “ad-venire” in Latin or “to come to”) is the season encompassing the four Sundays (and weekdays) leading up to the celebration of Christmas. The Advent season is a time of preparation that directs our hearts and minds to Christ’s second coming at the end of time and to the anniversary of Our Lord’s birth on Christmas. From the earliest days of the Church, people have been fascinated by Jesus’ promise to come back. But the scripture readings during Advent tell us not to waste our time with predictions. Advent is not about speculation.
Our Advent readings call us to be alert and ready, not weighted down and distracted by the cares of this world (Lk 21:34-36). Like Lent, the liturgical colour for Advent is purple since both are seasons that prepare us for great feast days. Advent also includes an element of penance in the sense of preparing, quieting, and disciplining our hearts for the full joy of Christmas.
As we prepare for Christmas, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) notes some differences to the Mass that should be observed during the season. For instance, Fathers Peter and Antonio will wear violet or purple during Advent, except for the Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday) when rose is worn (GIRM, no. 316). Aside from what the priest wears, other aesthetic changes in the church can include a more modestly decorated altar (such as the absence of flowers).
During the final days of Advent, from 17 December to 24 December, we focus on our preparation for the celebrations of the Nativity of our Lord at Christmas. In particular, the “O” Antiphons are sung during this period and have been by the Church since at least the eighth century. They are a magnificent theology that uses ancient biblical imagery drawn from the messianic hopes of the Old Testament to proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment not only of Old Testament hopes, but of present ones as well.
Have you ever wondered why we have wreaths at Advent? Traditionally, Advent wreaths are constructed of a circle of evergreen branches into which four candles are inserted, representing the four weeks of Advent. Ideally, three candles are purple, and one is rose, but white candles can also be used. The purple candles symbolise the prayer, penance, and preparatory sacrifices and goods works undertaken at this time. The rose candle is lit on the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, when the priest also wears rose vestments at Mass; Gaudete Sunday is the Sunday of rejoicing, because the faithful have arrived at the midpoint of Advent, when their preparation is now half over, and they are close to Christmas. The progressive lighting of the candles symbolises the expectation and hope surrounding our Lord’s first coming into the world and the anticipation of his second coming to judge the living and the dead.
The Nativity Scene
In 1223 AD St Francis made a living crib, an enactment of the birth of Christ near the town of Greccio on Christmas Day. Desiring to represent as faithfully as possible the lowly poverty of the infancy of the Saviour born at Bethlehem, when the Feast of the Nativity was at hand, Francis sent word to a religious nobleman in the town of Greccio named John who provided an ox and an ass, with a stable, in anticipation of the joys of the coming celebration. And so, out of Greccio was made a new Bethlehem! Francis stood before the manger overcome with joy, and Mass was celebrated over the crib. After the celebration, Francis insisted that care be taken of the hay and the animals, reminding us to take care of every created thing even after we no longer need it! St Francis’ initiative at Greccio popularised the making of a Christmas crib in our homes, churches, hospitals, schools and other places where we wish to remember the Christmas event.
- Advent has a twofold character, for it is a time of preparation for the Solemnities of Christmas, in which the First Coming of the Son of God to humanity is remembered, and likewise a time when, by remembrance of this, minds and hearts are led to look forward to Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. For these two reasons, Advent is a period of devout and expectant delight.
- Advent begins with First Vespers (Evening Prayer I) of the Sunday that falls on or closest to 30 November and it ends before First Vespers (Evening Prayer I) of Christmas.
- The Sundays of this time of year are named the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Sundays of Advent.
- The weekdays from 17 December up to and including 24 December are ordered in a more direct way to preparing for the Nativity of the Lord.
- The liturgical colour for Advent is purple, just like Lent—as both are seasons that prepare us for great feast days. Also Advent (like Lent) includes an element of penance in the sense of preparing, quieting and disciplining our hearts for the full joy of Christmas.
- This penitential dimension is expressed through the colour purple, but also through the restrained manner of decorating the church and altar: “During Advent the floral decoration of the altar should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this time of year, without expressing in anticipation the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord…[also] the use of the organ and other musical instruments should be marked by a [similar] moderation…” (GIRM n. 305 and n. 313)
- The third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete” Sunday (coming from the first word of the Latin Entrance Antiphon for this day, meaning “Rejoice”) and the liturgical colour may be rose instead of purple. This is the Church’s way of further heightening our expectation as we draw ever nearer the Solemnity of Christmas.