Advent: Readings and Figures

Advent is a challenge for those with ministerial roles in the liturgy (readers, preachers, musicians and artists) and for the liturgy committee which supports them. First the season directs our attention to the end of time when Christ will come again in triumph. Then John the Baptist, herald of Jesus’ public ministry, takes centre stage. Finally, in preparation for the joyful celebration of Christmas, the liturgy of Advent focuses on the nativity. What joins these diverse elements together is the spirit of joyful expectation.

The gospel of the first Sunday of Advent looks to the Lord’s coming in glory at the end of time. This year (year B), the message is urgent: Stay awake! Advent begins therefore by picking up themes that occur in the final Sundays of Ordinary Time at the end of the previous year’s cycle, especially in the feast of Christ the King.

John the Baptist is the central actor in the gospels of the second and third Sundays of Advent. In year B, they are taken from the beginning of the Gospel of Mark and of John. It can sometimes be a little confusing just before Christmas to be hearing stories telling of events some thirty years after Jesus’ birth. It is a reminder that the Church’s liturgy is not a chronological re-enactment of past events but a living encounter with the whole mystery of Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection to glory.

The notion of the messiah/Christ may also assist us to recognise the fullness of this mystery. The first readings for these weeks are taken from the prophets who looked forward to the messiah. In year B, they come from Isaiah. These texts may help to situate John the Baptist as the last of the prophets who prepared for the coming of the Christ, the salvation of God’s people.

The scripture texts are well supported in Advent by the two proper prefaces. The second may be the best choice for both the second and third Sundays because of the explicit mention of John the Baptist.

The character of Advent changes sharply on the 17th December. The fourth Sunday of Advent, like the weekday liturgy of this period, concentrates on the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. This Sunday in year B has the story of the Annunciation from the gospel of Luke. The focus for this final week of Advent is on the role of Mary in salvation history.

The liturgy of Christmas day has a special character. The dominant symbol used for the birth of Christ is the light of dawn. For this reason, separate readings and prayers are given for a vigil Mass, and for Masses at midnight, dawn and during the day. The creative possibilities offered by this arrangement should not be easily discarded for the convenience of a uniform liturgical program. The symbol of light can also help us establish a link with Easter and thus connect the incarnation with the Easter mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection.


Elizabeth Harrington