Excitement is in the air as the “holiday season” begins. Around the same time as the reunions and feasts of Thanksgiving, Christmas lights begin to appear on houses. In many stores, similar lights and decorations have been in place since before Halloween.
Of course, this is to be expected. People naturally become excited for festive occasions long in advance, and the commercial world regards these holidays as financial opportunities. Most people in our culture have no reason not to begin their Christmas celebration right after Thanksgiving.
On the other hand, there is something strange about seeing Catholics beginning their celebration of Christmas as much as a month in advance. This practice essentially skips over the four weeks of Advent, the period of preparation for the great holy day.
Given this occurrence, before any discussion of what’s better to do in December, perhaps it would be helpful to explore what Advent is and why the Church has given us this tradition.
Living the Mysteries
What is Advent? First, it’s a liturgical season, one of the large blocks into which the Church’s year is divided. Participation in these seasons, whether joyful or penitential, is a way for Catholics to contemplate, relive and absorb the mysteries of the Faith. As the Catechism puts it, “In the liturgical year the various aspects of the one Paschal Mystery unfold” (CCC 1171).
With Christmas, then, we celebrate the birth of Christ; in Lent, leading up to Triduum, we commemorate His sufferings and death; during Easter we rejoice in His Resurrection; and the year concludes with the solemnity of Christ the King—just celebrated this year on November 25—on which we look forward to His coming at the end of time. In addition, in the long stretches of “ordinary time” are various memorials honoring the saints, reminding us of their examples and our communion with them, or focusing on something related to Christ (e.g. the Sacred Heart, the Exaltation of the Cross).
Where does Advent fit into this scheme? It is a penitential season, if milder than Lent, preceding the celebration of Jesus’ Nativity. It is a time of waiting, anticipation, preparation, and longing for the Savior’s coming. Even though, in strict point of fact, our Savior has already come, going through the solemn period of waiting beforehand helps us to remember and rejoice in what a marvelous redemption we have been given.
Furthermore, while we may not be still waiting for the Messiah’s first appearance, we are waiting for Him in another sense—awaiting His second, final coming—and Advent serves to make this, too, more present to us. Here, again, the Catechism sheds light; after discussing the ancient world’s expectation of a Redeemer, it explains, “When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for His second coming” (CCC 524).
If I may add a personal reflection, Advent is the season that embodies all our lives. We all go through times of waiting for something, either for a trial to end or for some blessing to come. We all need deliverance in one way or another. Whatever our lives may be like at present, chances are we can make our own the cry, “O come, O come, Emmanuel!” Advent is a season of longing, but also of hope, assuring us that the Savior does come: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
When Advent concludes, Christmas brings the joyous affirmation that not only has our Redeemer come for the whole world, but He comes for each of us, to bring each soul to hope, joy and wholeness. Yet having the four weeks of Advent first shows that the times of waiting, trial, and hope are also part of God’s plan of salvation. He often does not send His blessing right away, but prepares for it until the time has come, so that its eventual arrival is better and more glorious than its instant coming would have been.
Though it seems to postpone the Christmas festivities, Advent is actually a path leading up to Christmas, rich with opportunities to reflect on our Lord’s plan of tremendous love, grow in our love for Him, and have our “house in order,” spiritually as well as materially, so that our eventual celebration of His Nativity can be as full and joyous as possible. It would be a shame to bypass such a beautiful path.
Devotion vs. Celebration
Some, pondering the divisions of the liturgical calendar, might wonder why commemoration of a mystery should be confined to a certain time of the year. Why not begin celebrating any one of them—say, Jesus’ Nativity—now or any time? Isn’t it always equally true and important?
At least one Catholic, author John Clark, recently argued along these lines, maintaining that Christmas should be celebrated at any and all times of the year because devotion to the Infant Jesus is perennially valuable. “The truth and joy and beauty of Christmas explain not merely the date, but who we are as Christians,” he says. Clark points out that crucifixes are displayed and honored all year, not only on Good Friday, to honor Jesus’ Passion; so why should not creches be similarly displayed, to honor His Nativity?
This line of thought raises an interesting question. What are we doing when we hang up crucifixes and when we set up creches? Are the two the same?
Let’s begin with the crucifix. Every Catholic church and countless Catholic homes do indeed have them on display every day, including Easter Sunday. Clearly, this practice is not something unique to Good Friday, the day set aside to honor the death of Christ.
On the other hand, some customs are distinctive of Good Friday, and would be out of place on other days. We fast, go to a solemn service, strip our churches bare, and empty even the Tabernacle. An atmosphere of gravity and penance pervades the day. All of this would hardly be appropriate during Easter or Christmas.
This highlights the difference between an expression of devotion and a liturgical celebration. Private devotion is practiced on an individual level, and can focus on any aspect of the faith at almost any time. A member of the faithful may feel an attraction to a particular saint, or to some specific form of devotion to Jesus or His Mother. Sometimes prayer groups or private organizations grow up around such devotion. It is expressed in forms like prayers and meditations, honoring of sacred pictures and statues, or even visits to shrines. Catholics may choose among these devotions whatever draws them, whatever seems to be most helpful to their spiritual lives.
On the other hand, liturgical celebration is the official practice of the whole Church. It is what we do as Catholics. The Church has established these times to guide us in giving due honor to every part of the Christian mystery, and we have an obligation to keep them. Not many things are strictly required—as is, e.g. the Friday abstinence from meat in Advent and Lent—but we should be trying, in our practices and devotions, to live in the spirit of whatever season may be taking place.
So what does this mean for the creche? If it is ever a seasonally neutral piece of artistic piety like the crucifix, there is nothing wrong with having it out all year. As things are in our culture, though, Nativity scenes are usually unique to Christmastime. Not all decorating prior to that time is necessarily a problem, but we should take care to maintain a boundary between Advent and Christmas. The Church does not dictate what artistic means we are to use in keeping each season, but does outline clearly which seasons take place when.
Clearly, then, personal piety and liturgical practice differ greatly in nature and method. “Just as some Catholics have a particular devotion to Jesus in His Passion, some people have a tender devotion to the Infant Jesus,” Clark says. “We need to encourage that love and affection all year and every year.” This is true. In fact, the Church encourages her children to contemplate all the mysteries of their faith at least a little bit on a regular basis. One need only look at the Creed, which all Catholics recite at least once a week at Mass, or the ever-popular Rosary, which encompasses all the important points of Christ’s life in its four sets of meditations—His infancy, His ministry, His passion, and His resurrection and glory.
On the other hand, we need more than five-minute reflections on the chapters of our salvation. Every once in a while, we need to be thoroughly immersed in them, to let them truly fill our minds and hearts—and we can’t engage in such thorough contemplation of all the mysteries, all the time. Thus, the Church has designated these blocks of time each year to “walk us through” the story of our Lord’s redeeming love.
Parallels are evident even on the secular level. Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, etc., are each held only once a year—not because we don’t care to celebrate our fallen soldiers, our country, or the dignity of workers on other days, but because setting a time apart for each of these helps to stir up our respect and love for them. If the date were not clearly outlined, if we tried to have a holiday spread out indefinitely in an effort to augment the celebration, it would cease to have any meaning. The honor given to whatever was being honored would be cheapened, not increased.
The same goes for Christmas. Trying to make it last all year, or start a month in advance, would denigrate it. Delineating a specific season for it keeps it special and holy. Preparing for it through four weeks of Advent makes it even more special and holy. If you love Christmas, all the more reason for you to love Advent.
I am not indiscriminately condemning all Christmas parties or caroling at nursing homes before December 25. I am simply saying that, as Catholics, we can’t decide to skip or ignore a liturgical season. More than that, we should look for ways to honor the present season.
The Season Made Concrete
Hopefully the above has indicated that Advent is not a mere negativity, a “not-Christmas-yet” time, simply about refraining from starting one’s celebration of Jesus’ Nativity. One can do many things to benefit richly from, and enter joyously into, this beautiful season.
When I was growing up, Advent was exciting because it made our family prayers special. We set up the four candles, of which we would light one each time a week began. We hung up the “Jesse tree,” a large felt tapestry bearing an image of a pine tree (so named because Christ is the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” as Isaiah 11:1 says). Every night, we would light the candle or candles and read a Bible story, beginning with creation, moving gradually through the history of Israel, and eventually arriving at the events just before and surrounding Jesus’ birth. After the reading, one of us would tape to the tree a little felt symbol corresponding to the reading—e.g. a rainbow for Noah, a lion for Daniel. My family still does all this, and the little ones love lighting the candles, blowing them out afterwards, and putting up the symbols.
This is just one way to make Advent come alive. Other simple, tangible methods can be fun for children, such as little cardboard calendars with a tab to lift every day of the season, uncovering a quote or picture or some such with each one. Adults may benefit from relevant spiritual reading, such as Come, Lord Jesus by Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C., or the “Advent Companion” available from Magnificat’s bookstore. Magnificat itself, available online and as an app as well as a physical prayer book, could be a helpful spiritual resource. Of course, the daily Mass readings and the prayers of the Divine Office are always excellent ways to participate in the liturgical season.
We may also seek to round out our Advent with the traditional trio of “prayer, fasting and almsgiving.” While Advent may not be as austere in its penitential nature as Lent, we can still practice simple sacrifices like foregoing sweets or spending less time on social media. Works of charity, of any sort, are a good addition to one’s spiritual life at any time, but all the more so in this time of spiritual preparation.
With so many opportunities, Advent can be a very blessed four weeks. Find the practices that work for you, and keep them up throughout the holy season. I predict—on behalf of Mother Church—that you’ll be glad you did when Christmas arrives.