The term no doubt is not a stranger to all of us. In my own experience since elementary this season has always been explained to us as a season of expectation, of hope, of waiting for the coming of the Lord. This meaning would inevitably resound those first days of the season that is fast approaching. Because, as its very name would indicate, the term “advent” (from the Latin adventus or coming) points to the fact of the Lord’s approach.
It’s very easy to identify this coming with his historical coming, which we celebrate at the culmination of the season, at Christmas, with the Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord. We deck the halls, as the popular song suggests, we busy ourselves in drawing up Christmas lists, we spruce up the tree, and we prepare ourselves to celebrate the feast with family and friends, all in good cheer. To think of the expense of the Christmas feast and the cost of the gifts in kind and in cash would be another thing. Everything is done in order to remember the birth of Jesus Christ, and make present liturgically the birth of the Word of God, made flesh in the virgin womb of Mary Immaculate.
But this is not all there is to Advent however. This is may have been taught to us catechism class or it may have been mentioned to us in homilies and advent recollections, but the season does not only look back to Jesus’ coming in history. The other part of this “advent” is that in this season, we are looking forward to another coming, which will take place at the end of history, when everything reaches its fulfillment and completion. Advent also is about the definitive coming of Christ, who will come no longer in the humility of the flesh, but will return with that assumed humanity glorified; he will come as King and Judge. This is the counterpart of the adventus or coming: in this season we also look forward to the parousía (or “presence” in Greek).
These characteristics could be seen in the historical development of the liturgy (yes, liturgy develops and progresses in its form of expression, while remaining the same in its very heart). It is held that the celebration of a preparatory period to Christmas took form towards the end of the 4th century en Spain and Gaul. It had an ascetic character and lasted for six weeks, very much like the advent observance of the Ambrosian Rite proper to Milan, Italy (which is not only known for fashion and the opera). There wasn’t anything like it in Rome until the 7th century. That which pertains to our consideration is that in the liturgical texts of those centuries—the precursors of the Roman Missal that we have at present—entitled Prayers of the Advent of Our Lord, were formulated not to prepare the faithful for Christmas, but rather reminded them of the final coming of the Lord in the end times.
As such, Advent, before becoming a period of preparation for Christmas, commemorated the Parousía, or the Last Judgment, if you may. This being so, one may not find it strange that in these ancient liturgical prayers had Christmas as the first day of the liturgical year and the weeks of Advent as the last days. On one hand, when did Advent become a period of preparation for Christmas we do not know, but on the other, it is very much possible that the celebration of the expectation of the final coming of the Lord was combined with the historical wait for the coming of the Messiah in the Old Testament. The fact is remains, however, that Advent in the Roman Liturgy, in other words, that which is commonly celebrated in a greater part of the Catholic world, is characterized by these two meanings: the reminder of the final coming of Christ and the preparation for Christmas.
Considering these two things as we begin Advent would help us better in preparing ourselves for the Christmas feast. I believe that, considering the quality in which our present culture usually celebrates the season, preparing oneself for Christmas while being mindful that the Lord will come again allows us to celebrate the feast more fruitfully.
One doesn’t need both eyes in order to notice how, in more ways than one, the Christmas feast and it preparation has been transformed into one big consumerist festival. It’s as if Christmas is all about buying things, and enjoying things; it’s about eating and drinking and partying. It may make sense when one thinks that the birth of “Baby Jesus” is reason enough for all the celebration. Quite right. But the celebration is not supposed to be the end in itself. We have easily transformed a festival of God’s humility into a raging orgy of consumerism and shallow feelings. But the feast of the Incarnation and the Nativity is more dense than that. Christ came, he achieved our redemption, he ascended to the Father’s right hand, and there he will come again, and when he does, he will come as Rex tremendae maiestatis, the King of awe-inspiring majesty, as the liturgical sequence for All Soul’s Day reminds us. When he comes, he won’t be the cute Baby who could be cuddled and kissed and played with; he would be the Judge before whose gaze our shallowness and frivolity would be embarrassingly made evident. He would be the same Jesus, though.
I’m not making a point against partying on Christmas, but that which I would like to express is that the eschatological consideration of Advent (or, that Advent also brings to mind the certainty of Chrsit’s second coming) ought to help us realize that Christmas is more than just partying; it’s more than just beautifully wrapped gifts or pretty decorations and lights: Advent (and Christmas) is about being prepared to receive the Lord when he finally comes, remembering that the first time that he did he was rejected already by men.
This element of the second coming, sobering as it is, gives the Advent and Christmas the weight that it may have otherwise lost: this season is not so much about the excess of shopping and consumerist pursuit, but the inner cleansing of our hearts through penance and prayerful expectation.
This is one ascetic challenge that I think all of us should accept as we enter Advent: to see it as it really is, a time of preparation, through inner penance and prayer, for the celebration of the feast of Nativity, while anticipating the coming of the Son of Man who will return in glory, of which we know neither the day nor the hour.