The Definitive Guide to Advent

Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of the Christ Child, but in the midst of the pre-Christmas frenzy, it's easy to lose sight of the profound spiritual importance of the Advent season. Your greatest temptation during Advent will be scrimping on your spiritual needs because there are so many other things going on!

There are presents to make or buy, cookies to bake, cards to mail, parties to plan, gifts to wrap and trees to decorate. Even your parish can put demands on your time with choir practices, pageant rehearsals, candy sales, food collections for the poor and Advent evenings of reflection.

There's nothing wrong with pre-Christmas preparations. But it's important to balance the sacred part of the Advent season with all of the other things you are doing. If you don't make time for quiet reflection, prayer and conversion of heart, you will find yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted by Christmas Day. Your Christmas celebration will look perfect on the surface, but will feel spiritually unsatisfying. You will have a hard time experiencing the joy and peace that the Babe in Bethlehem brings.

Keeping a balance between the spiritual and the secular will require a little planning on your part. Start by making a list of everything that needs to be done. Then block into your calendar specific times every day for personal prayer, spiritual reading and reflection.

As you move through Advent you will begin to relish those quiet moments in your day. They will become like a spiritual port in a secular storm. The prayer time will restore your spirit. The spiritual insights will help to keep you focused. You may like it so much that you'll decide to carry over into the New Year the practice of setting aside daily quiet time with God.

Ten Ways to Get More out of Advent

Here are some simple ways to incorporate traditional Advent practices into your busy schedule:

Reflect on Advent as a time of waiting. The idea of waiting is not popular in our culture of instant gratification, but it creates in us a new kind of self-discipline that helps us to appreciate the present moment and look to the future with peaceful anticipation.

Turn your breathing into a prayer. Take a few deep breaths throughout the day and imagine that God's love is flowing through you to every part of your body. As you exhale, let go of tension, worry and anything else that is not of God.

Long for the Lord. Make it a habit of silently praying, "Come, Lord Jesus."

Unite with Mary. Set aside time once a day to join Our Lady in praying the Canticle of Mary (see Lk 1:46-55).

Do something nice for someone every day. It might be an encouraging word, a phone call, a note of appreciation or a little act of kindness.

Get rid of grudges. Use Advent as an opportunity to let go of any anger or resentment that you might be holding onto.

Pray for patience. If you find yourself becoming anxious or upset, ask the Lord for the gift of patience. Then make a conscious effort to be a more patient person.

Offer up something painful or difficult in your life. The best way to transform trials and tensions is to turn them into a prayer.

Receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Attend your parish penance service and take advantage of the opportunity to cleanse your soul in preparation for the coming of Jesus.

Think about the special gifts and talents God has given you. How are you using these gifts?

What is Advent?

The word "Advent" comes from the Latin Adventus, which means "coming." It is a time for quiet reflection, prayer and conversion in anticipation of the coming of Christ from two different perspectives. The readings and the liturgies during Advent prepare us for the birth of Jesus, but they also prepare us for the Second Coming of Jesus at the end of the world. The season offers us the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, and to be alert as we await his Second Coming. Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas. It ends at sundown on Christmas Eve. Since Christmas falls on different days of the week, Advent can range in duration from 22 days when Christmas falls on a Monday to 28 days when Christmas falls on a Sunday. Advent marks the beginning of the Church year. Unlike the secular year, which marks the passage of time, the liturgical year celebrates the sacred mysteries of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The year begins during Advent in anticipation of the coming of Jesus with reflections on the Hebrew prophecies and the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah.

What do the colors of Advent signify?

The purple or dark blue is a symbol of royalty that anticipates the coming birth of Jesus. It also reflects a spirit of penitence and the need to prepare our hearts. Pink is a secondary Advent color that symbolizes the joy of the season. The evergreens in the Advent wreath signify eternal life that comes to us through Jesus.

What are the rules regarding fasting and abstinence during Advent?

There are no longer any "official" days of fast or abstinence during Advent, but Catholics are encouraged to prepare themselves spiritually during Advent with voluntary acts of prayer, fasting, penance and almsgiving.

Traditions: Posadas

Posadas, a word that means "shelter" or "lodging," is an Advent custom in Mexico. It re-enacts Mary and Joseph's search for lodging as they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The Posadas takes place over nine days, Dec. 16-24, which symbolizes the nine months of Mary's pregnancy. People go from house to house seeking lodging, but the "innkeepers" refuse to let them stay. On Christmas Eve, the travelers are finally welcomed at the last house where they celebrate the birth of Jesus.

The origin of the custom is attributed to St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), who carried statues of Joseph and Mary through the Carmelite Convent in Spain seeking a place to stay. Missionary priests brought the custom to Mexico using real people instead of statues.

Today's families can adapt the tradition using the figures from their Nativity Scene to re-enact Mary and Joseph's journey to the stable in Bethlehem. Start with an empty stable. Place the figures of Mary and Joseph on the other side of the room and move them closer to the crèche each day. On Christmas Eve add Baby Jesus, the angels and the shepherds. Then let the Wise Men begin their journey to the crèche so they arrive on the feast of the Epiphany.

Traditions: Advent Calendar

The Advent calendar started in Germany during the 1800s. Families drew a chalk line or lit a candle every night to mark the days until Christmas. Gerhard Lang produced the first printed Advent calendar, which contained small pictures that could be glued to a piece of cardboard each day.

Over time, Advent calendars became more sophisticated with little doors that contained candy or a Bible verse. During World War II, the production of Advent calendars was halted in Germany. After the war, the custom spread to the United States. Many families make their own calendars using pictures, candies or trinkets.

Traditions: The Advent Chain

An Advent Chain is a way to mark the days through Advent. Cut one strip of purple construction paper for each day of Advent. Use a pink strip for the third Sunday of Advent and a white strip for Christmas. Some families like to write something special on each strip such as: "Call Grandma today." "Do something nice for someone." "Say a Hail Mary for someone who is sick." "Read a book about a saint." Let everyone in the family brainstorm other things to write. Then paste or staple the strips to create loops that interlock to form a chain. Each morning detach one loop and read the message as you prepare for Christmas.

Traditions: The Jesse Tree

A Jesse Tree is a small, artificial tree with homemade decorations that represent important people, places or events from Jesus' family history. It gets its name from Isaiah 11:1: "A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots."

Jesse was the father of King David. Some families hang a symbol on the tree each day and then read a Scripture passage about the symbol. Here are examples:

A picture of the world to symbolize God's creation (Gn 1:26-31) Noah's Ark (Genesis chapters 6, 7, 8 and 9) Stone tablets representing the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:1-7)  A coat of many colors symbolizing Joseph (Gn 37)  A crown representing King David (2 Sm 5:1-5) Flowing water representing John the Baptist (Mk 1:1-8) A picture of Our Lady (Lk 1:26-38) A hammer representing St. Joseph, the carpenter (Mt 1:18-25) A star over the stable in Bethlehem (Lk 2: 6-2)  Baby Jesus in the manger (Lk 2:1-20).

Traditions:  Advent wreath

For centuries, Catholics have lit the Advent wreath as part of their spiritual preparation for Christmas. The evergreen branches shaped into a circle represent everlasting life promised by Jesus. Since Advent falls during the darkest time of the year, the lighting of the candles reminds us that Jesus came into the world to dispel darkness and radiate the light of God's love.

To make your own Advent wreath, you'll need four candle holders, three purple candles, one pink candle and real or artificial evergreen branches to circle the candles in the shape of a wreath. Some families like to add a white Christ candle in the center, which is lit on Christmas Eve.

There are a variety of different interpretations as to what each candle represents. For some, the candles represent an individual such as St. John the Baptist or Our Lady. For others, the candles represent places such as Bethlehem or Nazareth. For others, the candles represent a virtue, such as faith, hope, joy and love.

Here is a simple candle-lighting ceremony with ideas on how you can incorporate symbolism and prayer into your Advent wreath:

1st week of Advent: The first purple candle signifies hope. Light the candle and pray: Dear God, help each person in our family to wait patiently for the coming of Jesus. Fill us with hope. Amen.

2nd week of Advent: The second purple candle signifies peace. Light two purple candles and pray: Dear God, help each person in our family experience wonder and awe as we await the coming of the Christ Child. Fill us with a deep sense of peace. Amen.

3rd week of Advent: The pink candle signifies joy. Light two purple candles, one pink candle and pray: Dear God, help each person in our family understand the true meaning of Christmas. Fill us with joy as we anticipate the birth of Jesus. Amen.

4th week of Advent: The fourth candle signifies love. Light all of the candles and pray: Dear God, help each in our family grow in our appreciation of others as we prepare for the birth of Jesus. Fill us with love as we grow closer to the birth of Jesus. Amen.

Advent feast days, food and fun

Celebrations of Advent feast days have inspired colorful customs in countries around the world. Here are some ideas on how you can adapt them to enrich your experience of Advent this year:

The feast of St. Nicholas l Dec. 6

St. Nicholas, a third-century bishop, was known as a miracle worker and a giver of secret gifts. In some Northern European countries, children put their shoes by the door the night before the feast of St. Nicholas. They wake the next morning to find sweets and small toys were left by the great saint. Cookies are traditional treats for St. Nicholas Day. In Germany, they make Springerles or Pfeffernusse. Speculaas cookies are eaten on St. Nicholas Day in the Netherlands.

The feast of the Immaculate Conception l Dec. 8

This holy day of obligation honors Our Lady, who was conceived without original sin. Make plans to take the family to Mass for the feast day. Then plan a dinner celebration to honor Our Lady. Before dinner, say a Hail Mary together as a family. Or sing your favorite Marian hymn. Our Lady, under the title Immaculate Conception, is the patroness of the United States.

The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe l Dec. 12

This feast day commemorates the appearance of Our Lady to a Mexican peasant named Juan Diego. No one believed him, including the bishop. He told Juan Diego to ask for a sign. Our Lady instructed him go to a nearby hilltop, where he found roses in bloom -- even though it was December! It's a great day to have a Mexican dinner with real or artificial roses as a centerpiece. After dinner, read the story of Juan Diego.

The feast of St. Lucy l Dec. 13

St. Lucy was a fourth-century martyr, whose name and feast day are associated with light. In Norway, children light candles and bring pastries called Lussekattor to their parents on the morning of St. Lucy's feast day. In Sweden, they eat a ginger cookie called Luciapepperkakor. Girls dressed as St. Lucy carry the cookies and other pastries in a procession as songs are sung. Boys play different roles associated with Christmas. It's believed that celebrating Saint Lucy's Day will help one live the long winter days with enough light.
In Italy, St. Lucy brings small gifts to good children. In Hungary, there is a tradition of planting wheat seeds in a little pot on the feast of St. Lucy. Children watch the wheat grow and use the sprigs in the manger of their family's Christmas crèche. Another tradition is making St. Lucy's Crown, which consists of two loaves of braided sweet bread shaped into a crown, and topped with cherries, candies and candles.
St. Lucy is the patron saint of the blind.

Scripture Themes for Advent

WEEK 1

First Reading: Is 63:16b-17,19b;64:2-7

Second Reading: 1 Cor 1:3-9

Gospel: Mk 13:33-37

The theme for the First Week of Advent focuses on our longing for the coming of the Lord.

In the first reading, we hear the lament of the Hebrew people, who feel as though God has abandoned them. They beg the Lord to come and help them.

In the second reading, St. Paul assures us that God is with us as we wait for the return of Jesus Christ at the end of the world. He encourages us to wait in joyful anticipation and confidence.

In the Gospel, we hear a parable that illustrates the need to be alert and ready as we await the Second Coming of Christ.

WEEK 2

First Reading: Is 40:1-5,9-11

Second Reading: 2 Pt 3:8-14

Gospel: Mk 1:1-8

The theme for the Second Week of Advent focuses on repentance as we prepare for the coming of the Lord.

In the first reading, God sends a prophet to comfort the people. Their sins will be removed and they will be led home by the Lord, who is a gentle shepherd in their midst.

In the second reading, St. Peter urges us to repent and live blameless lives as we await the return of Jesus Christ at the end of the world.

In the Gospel, John the Baptist is identified as the prophet that God promised to send in the first reading. John lives an austere life in the desert and preaches repentance in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. He baptizes with water, but promises that the one who is to come will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

WEEK 3

First Reading: Is 61:1-2a,10-11

Second Reading: 1 Thes 5:16-24

Gospel: Jn 1:6-8,19-28

The theme for the Third Week of Advent introduces a sense of joy and expectation as we look forward with anticipation to the coming of the Lord.

In the first reading, God sends his prophet to bring good news to the people. It is a message of joy because God will bring salvation.

In the second reading, St. Paul encourages the people to rejoice, to pray and to give thanks to God. He ends with a prayer that the Lord will keep the people holy until the return of Jesus Christ.

In the Gospel, John the Baptist appears again with the reassurance that he is not the Messiah, but the real Messiah will come soon. John admits that he is not even worthy to untie the sandal of Jesus.

WEEK 4

First Reading: 2 Sm 7:1-5, 8-16

Second Reading: Rom 16:25-27

Gospel: Lk 1:26-38

The theme for the Fourth Week of Advent is the glorious manifestation of how God fulfills his promise to send a Messiah.

In the first reading, King David wants to build a temple in Jerusalem, but God speaking through the prophet Nathan tells David not to build a temple. Instead, God promises to raise up an heir of David, whose reign will endure forever.

In the second reading, St. Paul affirms that through Jesus Christ the mystery manifested through the prophets has become a reality.

In the Gospel, we see how God fulfilled the promise to David when he sent an angel to ask Mary to become the mother of Jesus. The child will be called Son of the Most High and will be given the throne of David. He will save the people and his kingdom will have no end.

Seven Ways to Help Others during Advent

Clean out closets and toy bins. Donate gently used items to local outreach centers.

Buy a Christmas gift for a needy child.

Donate money to a worthwhile charity.

Bring food to your parish food pantry.

Visit friends or relatives in a nursing home.

Bake cookies for a homebound neighbor.

Volunteer to help decorate the church for Christmas.

The O Antiphons

The O Antiphons are seven verses in the Liturgy of the Hours that contain powerful pleas for the coming of the Lord. They are chanted or recited during Vespers on the last seven days of Advent. They are:

Dec. 17: O Sapientia (O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation.)

Dec. 18: O Adonai (O Sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: Come, stretch out your strong hand to set us free.)

Dec. 19: O Radix Jesse (O Flower of Jesse' s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.)

Dec. 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and lead your captive people into freedom.)

Dec. 21: O Oriens (O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.)

Dec. 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of all the Nations, the only joy of every human heart; O keystone of the mighty arch of man, come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.)

Dec. 23: O Emmanuel (O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.)

If you take the first letter of each Latin title starting backward at Dec. 23, you will form the Latin words, Ero Cras, which mean, "Tomorrow I will come."

The O Antiphons inspired many Advent hymns, the most familiar of which is: "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," which incorporates the O Antiphons into its verses.

What are the differences between Advent and Lent?

Advent is a period of preparation for Christmas in the same way that Lent is a period of preparation for Easter. Church decorations during both seasons are minimal and unadorned. The color purple dominates both seasons. Both seasons use pink as a liturgical color halfway through the season on what is referred to as "Gaudate" Sunday in Advent, and "Laetare" Sunday during Lent. Both words mean "Rejoice!"

There are also some significant differences between the two seasons. There are four Sundays in Advent and six Sundays in Lent. While both seasons call us to conversion of heart, the main focus of Advent is expectation, rather than the deep penitence we experience during Lent.

Lorene Hanley Duquin writes from New York.