What is Advent All About?


A week ago the green vestments and hangings of Ordinary Time made way for the mauve of the Advent season.

Advent is a relatively late addition to the liturgical calendar. The early Church had only one annual feast, Easter, which celebrated the whole mystery of Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection. Over several centuries Christian communities began to celebrate a feast of the Incarnation of the Son of God at the same time that pagans celebrated the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice.

The first traces of a season of preparation for Christmas and Epiphany are found in Spain and Gaul in the late fifth century. This preparatory period was necessary because Epiphany had become an accepted time for baptism. Advent liturgy did not take shape in Rome until the sixth century.

Over time, Advent took on much of the penitential focus of Lent. However, it is no longer looked upon as a penitential season. The “Gloria” is omitted at Mass during Advent so that it might be sung with renewed joy at Christmas, not as a sign of penance. Advent is a time of anticipation, of making room in our hearts and lives for Christ. It is a time of hope.

Emphasising this message of hope in Advent liturgies would be a great gift to the many people for whom the pre-Christmas period is not filled with hope but with worry about the expense of Christmas shopping, the demands of festive meal preparations and the stress of having to balance conflicting responsibilities and deal with family tensions.

In the Roman Document on the Liturgical Year Advent is described 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)

This two-part nature of Advent is reflected in its two quite distinct stages. From the first Sunday until December 16 the focus of the liturgy is the watchfulness of God’s people looking forward to the time when “the salvation promised us will be ours when Christ our Lord will come again in his glory”. (Preface of Advent I)

Schools and other groups sometimes hold nativity plays and other Christmas events in early Advent. The time for such celebrations is during the last week of Advent and the season of Christmas which begins on December 25 and finishes on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord (Sunday 10th January in 2010). Christmas is not over and done with in one day, as the commercial world would have us believe, but encompasses more than three weeks of festivity!

From December 17 until Christmas Eve, the prayers and readings for Mass prepare us more directly to celebrate Christ’s birth. This is the time to begin singing Christmas carols, when they will enhance the liturgical themes of the season.

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. Being Christian is never easy but it is well worth the effort!

Elizabeth Harrington is the education officer with The Liturgical Commission in the Archdiocese of Brisbane. All of the more than 500 past articles are available on The Liturgical Commission website www.litcom.net.au. Items of interest can be located by date, title or word search. They may be reproduced by parishes for private use, provided the copyright line is retained.

Elizabeth Harrington