The Character and Characters of Advent

Advent presents a challenge for parish liturgy teams, preachers and musicians because the season of Advent, unlike other liturgical seasons, encompasses several different purposes and key figures.

The Roman Document on the Liturgical Year describes Advent as having “a twofold character: as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ’s first coming to us is remembered and as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ’s second coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation”. (GNLY 39)

First the season focuses our attention on the end of time when Christ will come again in glory. Then John the Baptist, who heralds 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 ‘devout and 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, the year of Mark, 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. 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 Christ as the messiah may also assist us to appreciate the fullness of the mystery that is celebrated in Advent. The first readings for these weeks are taken from the prophets who looked forward to the coming of the messiah. In this year B we hear from Isaiah. These texts 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 two prefaces provided for Advent reflect the scripture texts of the season. The second is the better one to use on the second and third Sundays because of the explicit mention of John the Baptist:
For all the oracles of the prophets foretold him,
the Virgin Mother longed for him
with love beyond all telling,
John the Baptist sang of his coming
and proclaimed his presence when he came.

The character of Advent changes sharply on the 17th December as the readings now look at the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. On the fourth Sunday of Advent we hear the story of the Annunciation from the gospel of Luke and the focus is on the role of Mary in salvation history.


Elizabeth Harrington