When I was a youngster, my family and I attended the local Presbyterian church, which uses a liturgical calendar and thus celebrated Advent. We'd put up the manger scene and every Sunday a family would light a candle of the Advent wreath and place another figurine into the manger until, by Christmas, the manger would be full, all the candles would be lit, and we'd celebrate Christmas with a candlelit worship service on Christmas Eve, complete with those beautiful hymns like Joy to the World, O Come All Ye Faithful, O Holy Night, and Silent Night; these are some of my favorite memories of the Presbyterian church. Years later when I had attended a local Episcopal church, I believe they did the same thing that I had seen in the Catholic church - the priest would light a candle on an Advent wreath, say a prayer, and perhaps there would be a hymn before resuming the liturgy. But, in the midst of all the Christmas decorations, candy, and commercials, here is this thing called Advent! What is it exactly and does it really matter if we observe it or not?
Nobody can really determine when Advent came about, although there is a historical record of it existing in the fourth century. This is due, in part, because Advent had to come after there was a general acceptance of the day in which to observe the celebration of Christmas (that's a post for another day). Traditions differed between East and West - in the East, the period leading up to Christmas is known as the Nativity Fast, or St. Philip's Fast, since it begins on November 15 (which, on the Eastern calendars is the feast day of the Apostle Philip). During this 40-day fast, Eastern Christians abstain from flesh meat, butter, milk, and eggs in a joyful fast in preparation for Christmas. In the earliest days of the season, both East and West fasted, although it seems as though in the West we would fast on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (this tradition seems to have originated in France and would last from the feast of St. Martin until Christmas and was sometimes called 'St. Martin's Lent'). Sadly, most of Western Christianity has abandoned fasting (although the Catholic Church still asks us to do so). Why fast? Orthodox priest Stephen Freeman explain that fasting brings to us hunger and humility, which increases as we become weak. Fr. Stephen said, "Fasting is about allowing our heart to break." All too often, we are distracted by life - especially by all of the conveniences; it's easy to forget God when we're well-fed, busy, stressed, or distracted in some other way. Fr. Stephen said, "We fast because our life depends on the Word of God," not on the food or comforts of this world.
Christians also fasted for other reasons, but in order to keep this posting a reasonable length I just want to concentrate on Advent and shift my focus to the Western church.
Evolution of Advent
As was mentioned, a liturgical season developed in the West (Advent) while in the East they prepared for Christmas through a joyful fast. In the West, Advent went through many changes; at one point it was for five weeks and at another point, it was only observed by monks, but the observance spread to the laity as early as the year 567 AD. There were various changes to Advent as the centuries went on, and also depending upon in which country you lived. By the twelfth century, the Advent fast had been replaced by abstinence (no flesh meat). However, by modern times Advent became completely eclipsed by Christmas and it's a forgotten part of the liturgical year for most modern Catholics. Since I am a nerd, I wanted to change that about my life and started to look into what the Church actually says about Advent today.
How Are We To Observe Advent?
In 1966, the Venerable Paul VI wrote the encyclical Paenitemini, which does a wonderful job explaining the history of the public penance of the Western Church (such as meatless Fridays and fasting). Paul VI recommends each national college of bishops to determine the best way for the faithful of their nation to practice public penance, which the US Bishops decided in their document Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence. In their comments on Advent, they say:
Changing customs, especially in connection with preparation for Christmas, have diminished popular appreciation of the Advent season. Something of a holiday mood of Christmas appears now to be anticipated in the days of the Advent season. As a result, this season has unfortunately lost in great measure the role of penitential preparation for Christmas that it once had. Zealous Christians have striven to keep alive or to restore the spirit of Advent by resisting the trend away from the disciplines and austerities that once characterized the season among us. Perhaps their devout purpose will be better accomplished, and the point of Advent will be better fostered if we rely on the liturgical renewal and the new emphasis on the liturgy to restore its deeper understanding as a season of effective preparation for the mystery of the Nativity. For these reasons, we, the shepherds of souls of this conference,call upon Catholics to make the Advent season, beginning with 1966, a time of meditation on the lessons taught by the liturgy and of increased participation in the liturgical rites by which the Advent mysteries are exemplified and their sanctifying effect is accomplished.
If in all Christian homes, churches, schools, retreats and other religious houses, liturgical observances are practiced with fresh fervor and fidelity to the penitential spirit of the liturgy, then Advent will again come into its own. Its spiritual purpose will again be clearly perceived. A rich literature concerning family and community liturgical observances appropriate to Advent has fortunately developed in recent years. We urge instruction based upon it, counting on the liturgical renewal of ourselves and our people to provide for our spiritual obligations with respect to this season.links and suggestions for assisting us in our observance of Advent in our domestic churches. Personally, I bought the book observed at the top of this posting, which offers daily reflections by the Church Fathers during Advent and Christmas. I also bought the incredible album, Advent at Ephesus, which offers wonderful hymns that mark the season, including my favorite O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Last year I bought a traditional Advent wreath and I plan on using it again this year, perhaps in conjunction with personal prayers or hymns. Starting a year or two ago, I've chosen Advent (the beginning of the new liturgical year) to make New Year's Resolutions that involve spiritual things, such as the resolution to start going to Daily Mass or the resolution to spend more time before the Blessed Sacrament. There's a little tradition that encourages the praying of only the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary during Septuagesima and Lent and I thought to myself, "Maybe I could also pray only the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary during Advent?" Also, I cannot forget that this is also a blessed time to offer alms to those who are less fortunate.
I am too unhealthy right now due to my overeating, but I would love to fast during Advent like the ancient West once did - on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - so maybe in 2015 I can offer that penance in preparation for Christmas. At least for now, the last couple of years I've abstained from Facebook during Advent, using the avatar above. I've recently learned that there are many Ecclesial communities engage in an "Advent Quiet Day", which allows people a time to "unplug" from the hustle and bustle of life and the Christmas shopping season so as to focus on what this time of year is all about. My Ordinariate Use parish will be having a Quiet Day, which will involve some instruction and then silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Another practice some people have done recently is that they will buy or put up their Christmas tree, but not decorate it or light it until Christmas so its bare presence is a reminder of our awaiting in blessed hope. People also put up their crèche, but they leave the figurine of baby Jesus out until Christmas Eve - again, the idea of waiting...anticipating. So our activities, although penitential in character, aren't meant to be as sorrowful as they are during Lent: Advent has a twofold character: as a time to prepare for the solemnity of Christmas when the Son of God’s first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. For these two reasons, the season of Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation.
Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations...Rightly, then, the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ (SC, 7). [T]he liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord's supper...From the liturgy, therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, as from a font, grace is poured forth upon us; and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God, to which all other activities of the Church are directed as toward their end, is achieved in the most efficacious possible way (Ibid,10).
Therefore, it is fitting that the US Bishops have encouraged the faithful to engage in a greater participation of the liturgy during the Advent season. For most of us, our only exposure to the liturgy is on a Sunday or a Saturday evening, but the Church has always encouraged the faithful to attend as often as they can, even daily. It is then that we can see the amazing mystery of God's salvific plan for our lives through the readings and imagery found in the liturgy.
You'll first notice that Advent is marked with a penitential nature; the General Instruction for the Roman Missal (GIRM) states "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 (305)." Also, "In Advent the use of the organ and other musical instruments 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 (313)." We are also reminded (346) that "The color violet or purple is used in Advent..." and that "The color rose may be used, where it is the practice, on Gaudete Sunday (Third Sunday of Advent)..." - more on Gaudete shortly. During Advent, the Gloria in Excelsis is no longer prayed or sang during the liturgy. The GIRM especially recommends homilies at weekday Masses during Advent and that funerals should not be conducted on any Sunday of Advent (at one point in history, even weddings wouldn't be conducted during Advent!)
The Scripture readings during Advent are specially chosen to make us attentive to the coming of our Lord. On the first Sunday of Advent, the readings focus on the "end times" and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. On the second Sunday, the texts focus on John the Baptist, the one who came to "prepare the Way of the Lord." The third Sunday - Gaudete Sunday - is when some priests wear rose/pink and the liturgy has a glimmer of joy. On this halfway-mark through Advent, we begin to anticipate the commemoration of our Lord's Nativity, as well as looking forward to his triumphant return in the East. So while the Gospel still focuses on John the Baptist's ministry, we also reflect upon in the other readings the Christian hope and joy that is felt when contemplating the salvation of the world. On the fourth Sunday of Advent, our anticipation is at an apex - the readings reflect upon the visions of Mary and Joseph and the events leading up to the Nativity.
A hallmark of the last days before Christmas (Dec 17-23) are the O Antiphons, which are the seven antiphons that are prayed (or chanted) before the Magnificat during Vespers of the Liturgy of the Hours/Divine Office. The Second Vatican Council's constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states: The divine office, because it is the public prayer of the Church, is a source of piety, and nourishment for personal prayer. And therefore priests and all others who take part in the divine office are earnestly exhorted in the Lord to attune their minds to their voices when praying it. The better to achieve this, let them take steps to improve their understanding of the liturgy and of the bible, especially of the psalms (90)...the laity...are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually (100). I've tried to get into this habit, praying from the Book of Common Prayer (while using the readings from the Book of Divine Worship). It is my fervent hope that the Church can revise the BCP so as to further include traditions from the Roman Rite (such as the O Antiphons) and other such prayers that can help unite those from the Anglican tradition with the Roman Rite from whence it came. In the meantime, I am going to print the O Antiphons out so as to easily include them when I pray Evening Prayers starting on the 17th.
All of these things are ways in which we can shut out the secular world's destruction of Christmas, which encourages us as early as Halloween to go out and shop and forget about God. By becoming more involved in the liturgy during the Advent season, we can turn our minds to God and the mysteries of the faith. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours can help us reflect upon the Scriptures and to see how God has always been reaching out to us and promising salvation to his faithful people. We are blessed that Christ has given his Church these tools to assist us in our sanctification. In our attempts to shut out the secular world and reclaim our lives for Christ, we can refocus ourselves to what's important: "...Knowing God in truth, participating in his life, union with him through humility, prayer, love of enemy, and repentance before all and for everything, is the purpose of the Christian life."