Advent is not....

Today, Sunday December 2, is the first Sunday of the season of Advent and the beginning of a new year, Year A, in the liturgical calendar of the Church.

Although the Church is only just beginning its period of preparation for Christmas, retailstores put their Christmas gift displays and Christmas decorations in place months ago, and I am already heartily sick of hearing favourite Christmas Carols being interrupted by raucous announcements that checkout 5 is now operating!

Advent is probably the most misunderstood and misrepresented season of the liturgical year.  Over the years I have written several columns about the nature of Advent and its purpose. It might be instructive to counter some of the misconceptions about this season by looking at what Advent is not.

Advent is not Christmas. It is a period of waiting, of anticipation, of preparation for the celebration of Christ’s birth, but it is not the time for celebrating that event. In fact, the first three weeks of Advent focus on Christ’s second coming at the end of time. It is only from December 17th that the readings and prayers of the Mass start to refer directly to the birth of Christ. Not until this date should we even think about singing Christmas carols at Mass or putting up the nativity scene in the church!

There is plenty of time to sing carols and to pray before the crib during the Christmas season, which does not finish until the Baptism of the Lord, which falls on 13th January in 2008. While there seems to be general acceptance of the fact that it is not appropriate to sing ‘Alleluias’ before the Easter Vigil, this is not translated into an understanding of the inappropriateness of singing carols long before 25 December.

Advent is not Lent. In the past, Advent took on penitential characteristics, but the liturgical documents describe Advent as a time of ‘devout and joyful expectation’ (my emphasis). Many parishes use a lighter shade of violet for Advent vestments to emphasise that it is different from Lent. The Gloria is omitted during Advent, not because it is a season of penance and abstinence, but so that we might sing this hymn, which echoes of the song of the angels heralding the birth of Christ, with renewed joy and vigour on Christmas night.

Advent is not the end of the year for the Church as it is for the secular calendar, but rather the beginning of a new liturgical cycle. We have now moved into year A, the year of Matthew, in the 3-year cycle of Sunday readings, and into year 2 for weekdays. Preaching and liturgical symbols during Advent need to emphasise that this time of year is for Christians not an ending, but a new beginning, a chance to start again with hope in the future.

It is no easy task in the midst of all the contrary messages and images thrown up by the world for the Church to be counter-cultural and remain faithful to the true spirit of Advent, but at least we should make an effort!
“God of power and mercy, open our hearts in welcome.  Remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy, so that we may share his wisdom and become one with him when he comes in glory.” (Opening Prayer, 2nd Sunday of Advent)


Elizabeth Harrington