December 2, 2016
It’s easy to think of Advent as a time of joyful anticipation, filled with happy Christmas music, holiday parties, pre-Christmas gift giving.
But in the Church’s calendar, Advent is a penitential season like Lent.
“When we think penance we think Lent,” said Joan Watson, director of adult formation for the Diocese of Nashville. “Part of that is we don’t actually celebrate Advent, we celebrate Christmas.”
Like Lent, “Advent should also be a time of spiritual preparation,” Watson said.
The preparation is two-fold. First, we are preparing for the second coming of Christ, Watson said. And second, we are preparing for when Christ comes to us personally at the end of our life, she added.
In the Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent, Christ warns us, “Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.”
“We’re preparing our hearts for Christ,” Watson said. While most people use the four weeks before Christmas preparing for the holiday, “Advent reminds us the more important thing is preparing spiritually,” she said.
“Advent is a time to put ourselves back in the Old Testament past, to kind of imagine what life was like before Jesus came. Advent is about putting ourselves in this time of anticipation.
“We want to create a sense of longing,” she said. “We’re too comfortable and too busy and we’re not longing for Jesus. It helps us to remember we need a savior and Jesus is that savior.”
The Church helps to put us in an Old Testament spirit. “All the readings during Advent are from the Old Testament prophets who were preparing the Israelites for the coming of the Messiah,” Watson said. “Advent is the Old Testament in four weeks.”
And on Dec. 17, we begin the “O” Antiphons, an ancient part of the liturgy that last until Christmas. The “O” antiphons are the verses of the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” each of which starts with the word “O” and addresses Christ with Messianic titles. They beg God to come and save His people.
Advent is a time of waiting, Watson said. “Our world hates to wait,” she said, but “waiting prepares our hearts to receive the gift.
“Anything good in life is worth waiting for,” Watson added. “It’s in waiting and preparing our hearts that we appreciate Christmas.”
“Advent is a microcosm of life,” Watson said. “Our whole life is waiting for Christ. … The key is to find joy in the waiting.”
She compared Advent to pregnancy. “Any woman who has been pregnant will tell you that there is discomfort in waiting. There is anxiety in waiting. There is a feeling of ‘so close but so far.’
“There is also joy in waiting,” Watson said. “The thrill of expectation. Yes, there are countless days when a pregnant woman wishes she had her newborn in her arms and it was all over. But that period of waiting has a purpose. The baby needs that time to grow. And mommy needs that time to prepare.”
The traditional practices of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. They can also be used during Advent to prepare for Christmas, Watson said.
Families can find time to pray together during Advent as a reminder that the season is about the coming of Christ, Watson said.
Lighting the candles of an advent wreath is a traditional practice that families can do together, Watson said. “It’s a great teaching tool for kids.”
The advent wreath is adorned with four candles with a large white candle in the center, representing the Light of Christ. As another candle is lit on the Sundays of Advent, “even kids can see Christmas is coming because the light is getting brighter, and the light is Jesus,” Watson said.
The penance and spiritual preparation for Advent leads to the glorious celebration of Christmas, Watson said. “We have the time of penance because we’re going to have the feast after Christmas.”
And people today often forget that Christmas lasts well beyond Dec. 25. Watson leaves her Christmas decorations up until the Feast of Candlemas on Feb. 2, just like the Vatican traditionally does. That might be a bit long for most folks, she admitted, but Watson noted that Ordinary Time in the Liturgical Calendar doesn’t return until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which falls on Jan. 9, 2017.