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Advent: Awaiting the savior

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For The Dialog

The season of Advent has arrived, and for the church this is a very special season that prepares us spiritually, eschatologically and logistically for Christ. Spiritually, it focuses us on God coming into world in the flesh (incarnate) at Christmas in the person of Jesus Christ. Eschatologically (meaning looking toward the end-times), it prepares us for the Second Coming of Christ, when he will come not as Savior of mankind, but as its judge. Logistically, it revs up the engine of the new church year during which we worship and celebrate our savior, Jesus Christ. The first Sunday of Advent is our New Year’s Day.

The word Advent is from the Latin “adventus” for “coming” and is the name of the four-week period of preparation leading up to the birth of the Lord on Christmas. Advent always begins on the Sunday nearest the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle (Nov. 30) and it continues through four consecutive Sundays until the start of the first Mass of Christmas celebrated in the evening on Dec. 24.

The Waiting

Advent wreaths make the liturgical season visible in churches and homes, writes Father James Lentini. (CNS)

The Catechism (CCC 524) teaches us: “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. By celebrating the precursor’s birth and martyrdom, the church unites herself to his desire: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’”

Advent, by tradition, is both penitential and preparatory. It blends together a penitential spirit, very similar to Lent, and a joyful spirit of preparation for the birth of Christ on Dec. 25. The penitential aspect, which is primarily noted during the first two weeks of Advent, calls us to reflect on our relationship with God as we look toward judgment at the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time. The preparatory aspect kicks in directly in the last two weeks of the season; the readings and prayers at Mass and in the church’s Liturgy of the Hours focus on the impending birth of Jesus Christ. It is during this time we are called to identify how we can get our hearts and homes ready to welcome our savior, Jesus Christ, as God becomes man on that Christmas night.

 The color purple

The church denotes the color purple (violet) – just as with Lent – as the color of the season. In Advent, purple serves to symbolize both the penitential spirit and the time of anxious preparation. Thus, during Advent, the color of the vestments worn by the priest at Mass is purple or violet. There is one variant to this color: on the third Sunday of Advent the option is given for the priest to wear rose-colored (not pink) vestments.  The use of rose a way of symbolizing and awaiting the joyful coming of Christ announced in the first word of the Entrance Antiphon at that Sunday’s Mass: “Rejoice” (Latin, Gaudete). For this reason the Third Sunday is also called Gaudete Sunday; it is the tipping point in Advent in which the season now tilts closer to Christmas. The readings at Mass from this point onward shift their focus away from the Second Coming of Christ, toward coming of Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, at Christmas.

 Let there be light

One of the great ways that Advent is made visible to the faithful is by the presence in churches and homes of an Advent wreath. The Advent wreath is a circular wreath decorated by four candles, three purple and one rose-colored.  On the first Sunday of Advent, the first purple candle is lit; on the second, third and fourth Sundays additional candles are lit (with the rose-colored candle being lit on the third Sunday of Advent – Gaudete Sunday).

The Advent Wreath carries a beautiful symbolism that, in the era of electric lights, is lost. Back in the era before electricity, the Advent wreath provided, just as any candle would, light for a household. As Advent progressed toward Christmas and additional candles on the wreath were lit, the wreath provided more light to that home. By the fourth week of Advent, with all four candles blazing, the wreath gave abundant light. This reminded the family that as Christmas drew nearer, so too, did the coming of Christ, the light of world, lighting our darkness.

 

‘O’ my times seven

In Advent, from Dec. 17 to 24, the church in its Liturgy of the Hours (the official prayers of the church) observes the “O Antiphons.” In the praying of vespers (evening prayer), priests and all who pray these prayers, recite or sing the Magnificat (Canticle of Mary, Luke 1:46-55). Each night, before the recitation of the Magnificat, there is a short antiphon that is read. This antiphon helps to frame the thoughts of the person to the mind of the church as he goes on to pray the Magnificat.  These antiphons vary depending on day and season. During Advent, all these antiphons begin with the word “O” followed by a title of Christ. This is a way of identifying who it is we are preparing for during the final prayerful week of Advent.

The titles of Christ prayed during the “O Antiphons” are: O Sapientia (O Wisdom); O Adonai (O Lord); O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse); O Clavis David (O Key of David); O Oriens (O Rising Sun); O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations); O Emmanuel (O God with us).

Each of the titles for Jesus is a reference to the Old Testament, specifically to the prophecy of Isaiah, regarding the coming of the long-expected Messiah.

 ’Twas the night before…

On the evening of Dec. 24, the season of Advent comes to a close in each parish and in the church universal, as the vigil Mass for Christmas begins. However, there is another tradition to note about Dec. 24 and the end of Advent, which concerns Adam and Eve, greenery and bells.

Until the 1970s, there was no vigil Mass (i.e., Mass the night before a holy day) for Christmas. For some 1,500, years Mass was celebrated in the day, and there were no vigils. However, because of the great solemnity of Christmas, the tradition began that at 12:01a.m. on Dec. 25, the end of Advent and the start of Christmas Day, the first Mass of Christmas could be celebrated. This practice exists today in the form of Midnight Mass at Christmas.

However, beginning in the 15-16th century in Germany and other parts of Europe, many parishes observed the Feast of Ss. Adam and Eve (yes, that Adam and Eve), as the last day of Advent on Dec. 24. The idea was that Adam and Eve, through their “happy fault” (disobedience to God), allowed us to see God’s gracious plan of salvation and redemption as manifested in our Savior who would seek again to restore paradise for mankind. So, on December 24th, people would decorate their homes with greenery to remind them of the paradise that was the Garden of Eden, that Adam and Eve lost through their sin. Then, just before midnight, parish church bells would peal a funeral toll to announce the death of the “old” Adam, and then at the stroke of midnight, change the bells’ toll to a jubilant one to announce the birth of the “new” Adam (the new beginning) – Jesus Christ, who redeems fallen mankind, who opens the gates of paradise, again, to his faithful.

 People get ready

This Advent, do what Catholics have done for centuries: Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Examine your conscience, your faith life and prepare yourself for the coming of the Lord. Use the Season of Advent well; don’t celebrate Christmas before Christmas – but rather prayerfully anticipate the Birth of Christ. The wonderful aspect of Advent’s preparations is that as Catholics our celebration of Christmas begins Dec. 25 and continues for three more weeks. For the secular world, Christmas ends on Dec 25. The Season of Advent allows us to prepare for Christ thoughtfully, prayerfully, and reflectively. What a wonderful gift of the holy church to us all.

Father Lentini is principal of St. Thomas More Academy in Magnolia.