We have begun a new liturgical year with the Season of Advent, and after the year Melbournians have had, a fresh start is a welcome reality.
The liturgical calendar has a cycle that focuses upon the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus; the liturgical calendar enables us to immerse ourselves in the Paschal Mystery and deepen our relationship with Christ. The word “Advent” means “coming” and, in the liturgical season of Advent, we await Christ who is to come. The Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Calendar states:
Advent has a twofold character, for it is a time of preparation for the Solemnities of Christmas, in which the First Coming of the Son of God to humanity is remembered, and likewise a time when, by remembrance of this, minds and hearts are led to look forward to Christ's Second Coming at the end of time. For these two reasons, Advent is a period of devout and expectant delight. (n.39)
Along with the expectant delight, the season also has a penitential tone to it, as Christ’s Second Coming does have a judgmental element to it and this is reflected in the violet colour of the vestments, also worn during Lent and calls for a conversion of heart.
The reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is traditionally encouraged during these weeks and often parishes schedule the Second Rite of Reconciliation. Given that this year we have been unable to participate in the Eucharist as we would have liked, it is especially important this Advent that we try to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation as we missed the opportunities in Lent and Good Friday, due to the pandemic; it would be almost like pushing a 're-set' button that will place us in a stronger position to begin this new liturgical year.
The fervently expectant and reflective dimension of Advent is also expressed through the restrained manner of decorating the church and altar:
'During Advent the floral decoration of the altar should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this time of year, without expressing in anticipation the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord…[also] the use of the organ and other musical instruments should be marked by a [similar] moderation…'
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal n.305 and n.313.
The Advent Wreath appointed with three purple candles and one rose-coloured candle is a poignant focal point that helps us count the Sundays until Christmas. The Third Sunday of Advent is known as 'Gaudete' Sunday as it is the first word (in Latin) of the Entrance Antiphon for the day; it means 'Rejoice' and the liturgical colour used is rose (the candle and the vestments). The change of colour visually moves us up a gear as we expectedly draw closer to the Solemnity of Christmas Day. It’s almost like a preview or sneak peek at the joy of Christmas, but we then go back to fervently waiting, as the Fourth Sunday of Advent we have purple again.
Now that we can attend Eucharist again (albeit with restricted numbers) this Advent holds another level of significance. Hopefully we will return to the Eucharist with a deeper sense of gratitude for this sacrament and tune into each part of the Mass in a spirit of 'full conscious, and active participation' as called for in Sacrosanctum Concilium (n.14), the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.
The liturgical year also features a three-year Sunday cycle of readings for the celebration of the Eucharist, Years A, B and C. We have been following the Gospel of Matthew in Year A and now in Advent, we enter Year B, where our attention largely turns to Mark’s Gospel. In Advent, though, Mark’s Gospel–being shorter than the other Gospels–is supplemented by other Gospels. In the First Sunday of Advent, Mark has Jesus saying to his disciples:
'Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come. It is like a man travelling abroad: he has gone from home, and left his servants in charge, each with his own task; and he has told the doorkeeper to stay awake. So stay awake, because you do not know when the master of the house is coming, evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn; if he comes unexpectedly, he must not find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!' (Mark 13:33-37)
We can’t say that we weren’t told! You can pick up the sense of urgency here; something is about to happen – and we need to be prepared and on the alert. A regular practice of praying with the Sunday readings before Mass can assist you to engage with the Liturgy of the Word and allow you to truly hear God speaking his Word to you.
In the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent we meet John the Baptist, 'A voice cries in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight' (Mark 1:1-8). When I think of Advent, my thoughts immediately go to John the Baptist; a wild looking character by any reckoning. Advent is a time of increased focus upon conversion of heart and in the Gospel of Mark John the Baptist says, 'Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals.' The focus is not to be upon our unworthiness, but upon the One who is to come. John the Baptist helps us with our Advent preparation by calling us to repent and change our ways.
The Third Sunday of Advent continues to focus on John the Baptist as he prepares the way for Jesus, but this time through the lens of John’s Gospel. There, it is said of John the Baptist 'He came as a witness, as a witness to speak for the light, so that everyone might believe through him. He was not the light, only a witness to speak for the light.' (John 1:7-8) If John the Baptist was sent ahead to make way for Jesus, let us follow his example and make way in our lives to receive Jesus as well.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent tells the story of the Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel to Mary. Luke is the only evangelist to tell this story and it is important that we hear it as we prepare to remember the Incarnation where God becomes human. There can be no Christmas without Mary and Luke tells the powerful story of a young girl who is taken by complete surprise. 'Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God's favour. Listen! You are to conceive and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus'. (Luke 1:30) When we hear these words, we are very close to Christmas Day.
After coming out of the hardships of lockdown, it is tempting to skip ahead to the delights of Christmas. Advent calls us to wait, however, and to prepare our minds and hearts for the celebration of the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord on 25 December and to sharpen our attention for Christ’s Second Coming. Melbournians have been called to do much waiting this year; Advent calls for waiting of a different kind.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli27 January 2021