When does Advent begin?
This year, Advent begins Sunday, Nov. 27, and ends on Saturday afternoon, Dec. 24. Unlike Lent, which has a prescribed number of days, the season of Advent can last anywhere from three weeks and a day to four full weeks. The season begins with the Sunday nearest the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle on Nov. 30 and therefore can begin as early as Nov. 27 or as late as Dec. 3.
The reason the beginning of Advent can shift by as much as seven days is Advent always begins on a Sunday, and the entire season must have four Sundays before Christmas. Unlike Easter, which is determined by the date of the first full moon after the vernal equinox, which causes the beginning of Lent to shift accordingly, the date of Christmas is a fixed date that was originally determined by the solar calendar.
The beginning of Advent also marks the beginning of a new liturgical year, meaning the Church transitions to a new liturgical cycle of readings. Since last Advent, the Gospel readings for Sunday Mass have come from the Gospel of Luke. On Sunday, Nov. 27, and for the next year, the gospel readings will in large part come from the Gospel of Matthew.
The Advent Wreath
The origin of the Advent wreath is somewhat obscure. There is evidence that in pre-Christian Scandinavia a wheel was decorated with candles while prayers were offered for the “wheel of the earth” to be turned so that light and warmth would return. By the Middle Ages, Christians had adapted this tradition and used Advent wreaths as part of their spiritual preparation for Christmas.
Its symbols of life and light apply very easily to the Christian cosmology in which Christ is both the light that dispels the darkness and the life of the world. The wreath itself, a circle with neither beginning nor end, signifies eternal life, and the evergreens which decorate it signify eternal life, strength, healing and victory over suffering. In its totality, the wreath symbolizes new and eternal life gained through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Four candles adorn the wreath, symbolizing the four weeks of Advent. Three candles are violet and one is rose. The violet candles symbolize the prayer, penance and sacrifices undertaken in preparation for Christmas. The rose candle, lit on the third Sunday, Guadete Sunday, invites the faithful to rejoice because the midpoint of the season has arrived.
In 1854, Pope Pius IX promulgated the encyclical “Ineffabilis Deus” — God Ineffable — which clarified with finality the long-held belief of the Church that Mary was conceived free from original sin:
“The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.”
Mary was granted this special and unique privilege because she was to become the Mother of God. In other words, she received the gift of salvation in Christ from the very moment of her conception.
This belief is often misunderstood. Many think that the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary. That event, however, is the Annunciation of the Lord on March 25, nine months before Christmas. The Immaculate Conception refers to the condition that Mary was free from Original Sin from the moment of her conception in the womb of her mother, Anne. We celebrate Mary’s birth on Sept. 8, nine months after the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Every year on Dec. 17, the Church begins praying the “O Antiphons.” These seven short but beautiful gems, all beginning with an “O,” mark a shift in the focus of the season of Advent and count down the last seven days before Christmas with building anticipation. Dating back to the fourth century and rooted in imagery from the Old Testament, each antiphon rises up from our deepest desire for God while also providing us glimmers of God’s desire of us. The antiphons petition God to come and save us by fulfilling the Scriptures.
These seven antiphons are recited just before the Magnificat Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, Dec. 17-23. The importance of the “O Antiphons” is twofold — each highlights a title for the Messiah, while also referring to a prophecy of Isaiah of the coming Messiah.
Whether by chance or intent, the arrangement of these antiphons has a purpose. Taking the first letter of each Latin title of the Messiah in reverse order — Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia — the Latin words “ero cras” are formed, meaning, “Tomorrow, I will come.” Jesus, for whose coming we have prepared in Advent and to whom we have addressed in these Messianic titles, now speaks to us, “Tomorrow, I will come.”
The Two Parts of Advent
Throughout the liturgical year, a continuous reading of the Gospel for Mass is the main focus of the season; however, during the first two weeks of Advent, the Church gives us daily readings from the prophet Isaiah that look forward to the Second Coming of Christ. The focus is on the future when Jesus will come, escorted by the angels and saints, and there will be a day of judgment and the new heaven and new earth will become real.
Beginning with the third Sunday of Advent, the focus of the season shifts. The readings no longer invite us to look forward to the Second coming of Christ, but rather to look back in history to the first coming of Jesus — the historical reality that God became incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. That focus becomes even more intensified beginning Dec. 17, which marks the last eight days, or “octave,” before Christmas. During this week, the Gospels for Mass are taken from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, and we look at the events leading up to his birth. This sets the stage for the Christmas season, when we will look at the events of his birth.
The Tradition of St. Nick
While nearly everyone is familiar with Santa Claus, who visits children during the night of Christmas Eve, one fun holiday you may not have heard about is St. Nick Day. Typically celebrated Dec. 6 by leaving children small gifts in their shoes or stockings, this tradition is meant to honor the generous spirit of St. Nicholas, who was the historical inspiration for our contemporary vision of Santa Claus.
St. Nicholas was born into a wealthy family and raised to be a devout Christian. After his parents’ death, it is believed that Nicholas distributed their wealth to those who were poor, sick or suffering. He would later go on to dedicate his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra, which is modern-day Turkey.
Throughout the centuries, many stories and legends have been told of St. Nicholas’ life and work that help us to understand his extraordinary character and why he is revered as a protector and helper of those who are poor or in need. One such story is of a poor man with three daughters. In those days, a young woman’s father had to offer prospective husbands something of value — a dowry — to entice them to marry her. The larger the dowry, the better the chance the woman had at finding a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This man’s daughters were without dowries, and at that time, this meant that they were destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a gold ball appeared in their home, which provided for the dowries. The balls were tossed through an open window and are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left near the fireplace to dry overnight.
This story led to the modern-day custom of children hanging stockings on the mantle over the fireplace or putting shoes outside their bedroom door, hoping St. Nicholas would fill them with gifts. In some cultures, on the morning of Dec. 6, children wake up to three shiny oranges in their shoes or stockings, representing the gold balls left by St. Nicholas for the poor man’s daughters. In our culture, St. Nick Day is often celebrated by the giving of small gifts, coins or candy. Another tradition is to celebrate the generosity of St. Nick by donating unused clothing, toys or food items to an organization that redistributes these items to those in need.
The Hanging of the Greens
The Hanging of the Greens is a custom in Western Christianity in which many people ceremoniously adorn their homes, workplaces or churches with evergreens. Because of the two parts of Advent — a looking forward to the Second Coming of Christ at the beginning of Advent and the looking backward to the historical coming of Christ in the Incarnation at the end of Advent — it is customary to wait to hang the greens until closer to Christmas. As Catholics, we don’t typically adorn our churches until after Mass on the Fourth Sunday of Advent as a means to prepare for Christmas Eve and the Christmas Season.
From ancient times, evergreens have been considered a symbol of eternity, a sign of God’s everlasting nature. When hung during Advent, the symbolism of the evergreen points to the unending life when Christ returns and the righteous will enter eternal life. When hung at Christmas, the symbolism of the evergreen is understood as a symbol of God coming to dwell among us as word made flesh. In our northern climate, evergreens are sometimes described as a sign of life and growth overcoming and even flourishing during the dead of winter, and so of the resurrection of Christ.
Saints of Advent
Nov. 27 – St. Francesco Antonio Fasani
Nov. 28 – St. James of the Marche
Nov. 29 – St. Clement
Nov. 30 – St. Andrew
Dec. 1 – St. Charles de Foucauld
Dec. 2 – Bl. Rafal Chylinski
Dec. 3 – St. Francis Xavier
Dec. 4 – St. John Damascene
Dec. 5 – St. Sabas
Dec. 6 – St. Nicholas
Dec. 7 – St. Ambrose
Dec. 8 – Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Dec. 9 – St. Juan Diego
Dec. 10 – Bl. Adolph Kolping
Dec. 11 – St. Damascus I
Dec. 12 – Our Lady of Guadalupe
Dec. 13 – St. Lucy
Dec. 14 – St. John of the Cross
Dec. 15 – Bl. Mary Frances Schervier
Dec. 16 – Bl. Honoratus Kozminski
Dec. 17 – St. Hildegard of Bingen
Dec. 18 – Bl. Anthony Grassi
Dec. 19 – Bl. Urban V
Dec. 20 – St. Dominic of Silos
Dec. 21 – St. Peter Canisius
Dec. 22 – Bl. Jacopone da Todi
Dec. 23 – St. John of Kanty
Source: Franciscan Media
Advent Key Dates
First Sunday of Advent – Nov. 27
St. Nick – Dec. 6
Immaculate Conception – Dec. 8
Gaudete Sunday – Dec. 11
Our Lady of Guadalupe – Dec. 12
Las Posadas – Dec. 16-24
End of Advent – 4 p.m. Dec. 24