A Catholic Guide to the Importance of Advent
As the month of November steadily progresses on, I get a spark in my step thinking about how we are about to enter my favorite liturgical season of the year: Advent. When it came up in conversation with my children that I enjoy preparing for Christmas as much as — indeed, more than — celebrating it, you would have thought I told them that we were never having dessert again. The looks on their faces, I tell you: confusion! shock! dismay!
But, my friends, it is true. I love the season of Advent. Everything about it, from the lighting of the Advent wreath, to the songs of anticipation sung at Mass (my favorites are O Come, O Come Emmanuel and People Look East), to the devotional that I return to each year, fills my heart with gladness.
Even if you, like my kids, firmly place yourself in Camp Christmastide, I bet there are Advent traditions that you look forward to each year. And if not, might you consider starting some? After all, the season is one of great importance in our Catholic faith tradition. Here’s why:
Advent marks the beginning of a new liturgical year
The season of Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas, and that first Sunday of Advent commences a new liturgical year. On this day, the Church lectionary shifts, which, if you aren’t familiar with this aspect of our church tradition, means that we begin a new cycle of readings for the next 52 Sundays. There are three collections of readings, known as Year A, Year B and Year C, and each year exposes Catholics to a different set of Scripture passages (for instance, In Year A, we read mostly from the Gospel of Matthew during Sunday Mass, whereas in Year C we read the Gospel of Luke).
You may be reading this and thinking, “What difference does it make?! It’s all the Bible and regardless of which year we’re in, I have something to gain from it.” I get it. The shift in lectionary is an important part of the liturgical new year, but it’s not what makes the day feel special for me. Instead, I get excited about the liturgical new year because of our family traditions associated with the day. Each liturgical new year, we do two things: we choose a patron saint for the liturgical year ahead and we make a “Catholic New Year” family resolution. Often our two choices are linked. For instance, this past year, after the Holy Father named December 8, 2020 through December 8, 2021 the Year of St. Joseph, we decided to make St. Joseph our family patron saint for the year. For our “resolutions,” we made a list of St. Joseph related actions that we wanted to complete as a family, including: adding a St. Joseph statue to our family altar, praying a novena to St. Joseph, and each family member writing a letter to their godfather (St. Joseph is the patron saint of fathers).
Advent prepares us to celebrate one of the most holy of feast days, the Nativity of the Lord
The season of Advent is characterized by expectant waiting, hopeful anticipation, and joyful preparation for the birth of Jesus on Christmas day. The way I think about Advent and Christmas is similar to how I think about the season of Lent’s relationship to Easter: Easter and Christmas are such important days to us as Christians, marking the coming of Christ into this world and then the resurrection of Christ from death, that we can’t just celebrate them out of nowhere. We have to prepare our hearts to celebrate, and that takes time. Forty days, in the case of Lent, and roughly four weeks, in the case of Advent.
So, how do we prepare? Catholics around the world make their hearts ready by listening to the readings proclaimed at Mass each week with themes of hope, promise, prophecy, peace and adoration, and by lighting of candles representing the coming of lighting in their churches and homes. Individual families may also have their own traditions, many of which are shared, such as baking cookies (but then waiting to eat them until Christmas), shopping for Christmas gifts for a family in need, putting up a Nativity scene (though waiting to place in the baby Jesus until Christmas Eve), or keeping an Advent calendar. My family does all of these things (what can I say? I love the season), and with each activity, my husband and I try to cultivate an intentional conversation with our children about what waiting, anticipating and preparing mean to us, as people of faith.
Advent prepares our hearts to welcome Jesus everyday
Here is the thing about preparing for Christmas: we aren’t just preparing to remember Jesus’s birth, roughly two thousand years ago. We’re preparing for the ongoing and continual coming of Jesus into our lives and hearts in all moments and all places. God became incarnate through the body of a baby and the consent of Mother Mary all those centuries ago, and in doing so, he found a permanent place among us. Advent, in other words, should be shaping our hearts so that we are ready to welcome God into them everyday…not just Christmas day. With this end in mind, I spend a good part of Advent reflecting on the readiness of my heart to welcome Jesus. I do an examination of conscience and I go to confession. I put myself into situations where I will encounter strangers (like volunteering at a soup kitchen). I use time when I am alone in the car to pray instead of listening to music or a podcast. In all these ways, I open my heart to Jesus and the movement of the Holy Spirit within my life.
At it’s longest, the season of Advent is only 28 days (and if Christmas falls on a Monday, it’s a mere 22 days!), and I am committed to making those days count. There is so much for me to learn where it comes to the themes of expectant waiting, hopeful anticipation, and joyful preparation, and I eagerly embrace leaning into the songs, prayers, and rituals of the season.
How about you? How do you celebrate this holy season? I’d love to hear your traditions in the comments!