A couple of years ago, my mom and I got up at the wee hours of darkness on Black Friday and headed out to the Mall of America in the Twin Cities. It was the first year in nearly 15 years that I had done something like that, and I have to admit, I did find some amazing deals on some gifts as well as some fun things for myself.
When we got to my parents’ home later that afternoon, something wasn’t quite right — and no, it wasn’t guilt from over-spending. It was the holiday music that was playing in the stores, the strands of lights dangling from the mall ceiling, and red and white Santa hats worn by many sales associates. To top it off, soon after we returned from our shopping excursion, my mom started pulling out the Christmas tree from the attic.
The liturgist in me couldn’t remain quiet any longer: “Advent, Mom! Advent comes first!” Her reply was what I expected: “All the trees are up in the stores, the neighbors have their lights on and the radio stations are playing Christmas music. This season comes and goes so quickly; why can’t we put up the tree a little early so there’s time to enjoy it?”
It is true, the commercial holiday season begins in November and comes to a crashing halt on Dec. 25. By the next morning, radio stations return to their regular programming and decorations go on clearance sale.
In contrast, the Church begins her “holiday season” by first observing Advent, a time of preparation and waiting, beginning this year on Nov. 27. Christmas doesn’t begin until the Nativity of the Lord on Dec. 25 and continues until the Baptism of the Lord on Monday, Jan. 9.
A few words about Advent
The word Advent is derived from the Latin phrase “Adventus Domini,” meaning “the coming of the Lord.” Often, this is understood to refer to the first coming of Jesus. Rather, Adventus Domini refers to the coming of the Lord in the past, today and especially at the end of time. The season of Advent, therefore, is a season filled with anticipation, not just for the commemoration of the birth of Jesus — the first coming of the Lord — but also anticipation of current, future and final manifestations.
The readings of Advent illuminate this reality beautifully. The gospel for the First Sunday of Advent, invites the listener to be ready: “Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come … if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into.”
This powerful calling presents us, on the one hand, with the invitation to watchfulness and readiness and, on the other hand, it contains the awesome promise of the Adventus Domini, or the second coming of the Lord.
A reading from Isaiah on the Second Sunday of Advent looks forward to the end times in a slightly different manner. The long-awaited Messiah will “sprout from the stump of Jesse and … the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.” He will bring peace to the world, a peace which is described in a vision where “The wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.” The fear for the second coming of Christ, which the First Sunday of Advent may instill, is now softened with these images.
These two complementary texts suggest that the true spirit of Christmas lies somewhere between the joy and peace surrounding Jesus’ birth and the awe-inspiring anticipation of Christ’s return. The two always go hand in hand. As believers, we are invited to take courage in the promise of the past and to prepare for the fulfillment of that promise in the future. The goal, of course, is to become increasingly aware of the presence of Christ in the world today.
As Christians, We Need Advent
We need Advent, for without it, we stop being who we are — a people who are waiting. We need the Gospel’s command to stay awake and keep watch for the end of time. We need the prophet’s consolations of what that time will look like. We learn from the example of John the Baptist how to prepare a way for Christ to enter our lives and the lives of others. We learn patience and perseverance by the gentle strength of Mary, and we learn obedience in the dreams of Joseph.
Observing Advent helps us to celebrate Christmas, and just as we need Advent, we need Christmas. We need a festival that runs beyond a single day or a single week. We need time to tell the story of the shepherds who went in haste to Bethlehem, the magi who journeyed from the East and the glorious voice that came down from heaven acclaiming, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased!”
In the many days of Christmas, we shout loud and clear that Jesus Christ is born. The reign of God is here among us — in flesh and blood. That is why we gather around the star-topped tree of life, decorate our homes, and spread our tables with the bounty of the harvest. The marvels of Christmas are signs of God’s reign, and signs of a life that conquers death.
Of course, Advent cannot exist if we jump too quickly to Christmas. And Christmas cannot exist if we have already exhausted it by Dec. 25. These two seasons require each other. Only after the patient silence of Advent can the carols of Christmas resound. Only after Advent’s darkness can a single star illumine the world and bring with it so much joy. Only after Advent’s sometimes frightening stories of the end times can we hear the voice of an angel telling us not to fear.