Advent is not only one of the great seasons of the Church’s year; it’s the beginning of the new liturgical year, though maybe it doesn’t always feel that way. For some of us, perhaps, Advent is not a season we fully engage with. As the work year hurtles towards its conclusion and we get caught up in all the busyness, Advent tends to recede into the background.
But Advent is supposed to be a time of spiritual renewal: a chance to start again, to come home if we’ve drifted away, to rediscover the joy of knowing Jesus Christ. Jesus comes to make his home among us and within us. Advent offers us a chance to rediscover this.
So it's worth spending some time thinking about what Advent is, why it exists and how we might enter into it more intentionally.
The origins of the season are a bit fuzzy. In Rome, a season of preparation for Christmas didn’t appear until the sixth century. Before that, evidence suggests that it developed within a few local churches before spreading elsewhere.
For instance, in Spain and France, it was common by the fourth century to observe a period of fasting in the lead-up to the feast of the Epiphany. It was only in 581, in France, that a longer season was established and Christians would pray and fast from 11 November (the feast of St Martin of Tours) until Christmas. In this way, Advent takes inspiration from Lent.
The word advent comes from the old Latin word adventus, which refers to an ‘arrival, an approach or a coming’. In the context of the leadup to Christmas, it refers to the coming of Christ.
Which coming though? Traditionally, as St Bernard of Clairvaux pointed out, there are three ‘comings’ of Christ at the heart of Advent spirituality:
We know that the coming of the Lord is threefold … The first coming was in flesh and weakness, the middle coming is in spirit and power, and the final coming will be in glory and majesty.
During Advent, as we remember the first coming of Christ in the Incarnation, we enter into the experience of Old Testament Israel, recalling the many years of waiting for the Messiah, and the fulfilment of their hopes in the little baby in Nazareth.
We also look ahead to the final coming of Christ ‘in glory and majesty’, anticipating the transfiguration of all creation in Christ, the Last Judgment and the joy of heaven.
What St Bernard refers to as the ‘middle coming’ is Christ’s coming here and now, especially through the sacrament of the Eucharist. Christ’s coming is a sacramental and spiritual coming, but it is also a real coming—which is why we speak of ‘the real presence’. Christ lives in our midst, making his home among us. Christian discipleship means living as if that is true.
So while Advent was inspired by Lent, its spirituality is quite different. There is a sense of both waiting and preparation, ideas that are both captured in the concept of anticipation.
Anticipation is not simply a feeling of waiting or expectation. It is a doing, even if it’s a slow doing. The word anticipation comes from the Latin word anticipare, which means ‘to take possession of beforehand’ or ‘take care of ahead of time’.
In the context of Advent, we might imagine ourselves in the shoes of someone like Martha or Mary in the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells us, ‘In the course of their journey he came to a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house’ (10:38). How did Martha prepare her home for Jesus? Ahead of his arrival, how did she ready the home so that it was fit for a divine guest? How did Zacchaeus prepare for Jesus' arrival for that matter? Or any number of people who found themselves with Jesus under their roof?
Those people who welcomed Jesus might not have seen the full significance of his divinity at the time, but they sensed he was hugely significant. With the advantage of hindsight, we know that the person entering under Martha’s roof was the Son of God, second person of the Holy Trinity made flesh.
So this is what anticipation means in Advent: to actively prepare our home in the knowledge that Christ approaches.
As Jesus told Martha, he doesn’t want us to be ‘distracted’ or to worry over many things (10:40–41). He wants us to discover the ‘better part’ of spending time with him, listening deeply to what he has to say.
There are four themes corresponding to each week of Advent, beginning with the Sundays.
Hope doesn’t come from nowhere. The hope of God’s people in the Bible comes from the fact that God made them specific promises: of peace, of an eternal kingdom to be established by the Messiah, of a creation finally healed and at rest. So the readings for this week focus especially on God’s promises. Becoming acquainted with these promises is a good first step in coming to a deeper knowledge of who God is.
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths’ (Luke 3:4). As we dwell on these words of St John the Baptist, our sense of anticipation begins to ramp up in the second week of Advent. The promises of God continue, and there’s a greater focus of one promise in particular: ‘he is coming to save you’ (Isaiah 35:4). The message this week is clear: get ready to be saved.
When promises are fulfilled, when a long-awaited hope has been met, there is only one reasonable response: joy. When the Magi from the East saw the star above the place where Jesus was, Matthew says, ‘they rejoiced with very great joy’ before prostrating themselves in worship (2:10). The shepherds likewise ‘went back glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as they had been told’ (Luke 2:20). The third week of Advent is an opportunity to experience the ‘very great joy’ of knowing Jesus.
Finally, we come to the ultimate theme of Advent, the one that makes sense of everything else: love. The readings for this week focus on how the birth of Jesus through Mary is one of the deepest revelations of God’s love. One of the antiphons in the leadup to Christmas reads: ‘O Root of Jesse’s stem, sign of God’s love for all his people: come to save us without delay!’ The coming of Jesus to live among us and to share our humanity confirms this truth: God really does love us.
This Advent, let’s think more deeply and creatively about how we might enter into this season’s great themes, so that it becomes much more than just 'background noise'. Let’s take the time to pause, to listen to the music and maybe even move with it.
If you are looking for some resources on how to engage with the season, feel free to visit The Summit Online, where you'll be pointed to various prayers, programs, videos and articles to nourish and inspire you this Advent.
Main image: wreath in the chapel of St Mary’s College, Oscott, near Birmingham, UK. Photo by Fr Lawrence Lew OP.
Fiona Basile01 June 2023
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC)01 June 2023