We have now entered the season of Advent. Ideally, celebrating Advent involves spending time in spiritual preparation for the coming birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas. In Western Christianity, the season of Advent begins on the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas Day, or the Sunday which falls closest to November 30, and lasts through Christmas Eve, or December 24. Many times the significance of this Holy Season becomes lost in the hustle and bustle of getting the perfect tree or gifts.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Advent began sometime after the 4th century as a time of fasting and preparation for Epiphany, rather than in anticipation of Christmas. Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Christ by remembering the visit of the wise men and, in some traditions, the Baptism of Jesus. This tradition is reflected in the still common title, “Little Christmas”, for the feast of the Epiphany. Sermons focused on the wonder of the Lord's Incarnation or becoming a man. At this time new Christians were baptized and received into the faith, and so the early church instituted a 40-day period of fasting and repentance.
Later, in the 6th century, St. Gregory the Great was the first to associate this season of Advent with the coming of Christ. Originally it was not the coming of the Christ-child that was anticipated, but the Second Coming of Christ. By the Middle Ages, four Sundays had become the standard length of the Advent season, with fasting and repentance during that time. The church also extended the meaning of Advent to include the coming of Christ through his birth in Bethlehem, his future coming at the end of time, and his presence among us through the promised Holy Spirit.
According to the USCCB, 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 color 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 notes some differences to the Mass that should be observed during the season. For instance, the priest wears violet or purple during Advent, except for the Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday) when rose may be worn (GIRM, no. 346). Aside from what the priest wears, other aesthetic changes in the Church can include a more modestly decorated altar. The final days of Advent, from December 17 to December 24, 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.
On the first Sunday of Advent, Pope Francis has called on us to “awaken from our slumber” and to always be aware of the presence of God and to welcome Him in our daily lives. The Pope pointed out that the Lord always visits us in our lives, “makes Himself close, and will return at the end of time to welcome us in His embrace.” But we naturally ask ourselves, how will the Lord come to visit us and how will we recognize and welcome Him? The Pope underscored that “God conceals Himself in the most common and ordinary situations in our life,” and we need to be constantly aware of this reality, not awaiting extraordinary events. This can be when we face someone in need, a chance encounter, or even in what might seem quiet or dull moments of daily life. “It is right there that we find the Lord, who calls to us, speaks to us, and inspires our actions.”
“We must be awake, alert, vigilant. Jesus warns us: there is the danger of not realizing His coming and being unprepared for His visit. I have recalled on other occasions what Saint Augustine said: ‘I fear the Lord who passes by’… that is, I fear that He will pass by and I will not recognize Him!” “May we be helped by the Holy Virgin, Woman of waiting, who knew how to perceive the passing of God in the humble and hidden life of Nazareth and welcomed Him in her womb.”
Therefore, between bites of that infamous fruitcake take time to look for Jesus. His presence can be felt throughout the season, if we are open to it.