A common, pre-Christmas custom is the "Advent Calendar," a 19th century German cusotm especially popular with children. Advent calendars count the days to Christmas. As each dat eis uncovered, a picture or "treat" is revealed. Somewhere I still have an old Advent Calendar given to me more than half a century ago.
As a liturgical season, the Church’s Advent, which begins tonight, is part of the Church’s larger, annual cycle (the “Liturgical Year”), within which we commemorate the mysteries of Christ’s life from his incarnation to his ascension, celebrate his continued presence in the Church through his gift of the Holy Spirit, and express our joyful hope for his coming again. The commemoration of Christ’s incarnation, birth, and revelation to the world is the focus of the Christmas-Epiphany season now beginning. These four preliminary weeks of Advent are intended as a time when the remembrance of the world’s waiting for Christ’s 1st coming at Christmas focuses our attention on his 2nd and final coming “to judge the living and the dead,” while meanwhile directing our awareness of his presence in the present. The “great lesson of Advent,” Evelyn Underhill once wrote, “is the many-side truth of God’s perpetual coming to His creatures in secret and humble ways; the nearness of his saving care and energizing grace.”
Here in the northern hemisphere, Advent corresponds to the period of the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year, when the days are the shortest and the nights the longest. The now widely popular custom of the Advent Wreath may have originated in the old northern European winter practice of decorating a wagon wheel (not in use during the winter pause) with evergreen branches and lighted candles. In its present form, the four candles represent the four weeks of Advent. As the solstice approaches, an additional candle is lit each week, counteracting the increasing earthly darkness with the growing brightness that symbolizes the coming of Christ, the light of the world.
In recent decades, Advent has been increasingly eclipsed by secular society’s celebration of Christmas. Just as the Church spreads out its celebration of Christmas across Advent and Epiphany-time, so too our society spreads out the Christmas season starting in early November (or even October). Some seem to want to lament this, as if Advent and Christmas were in some kind of competition (a competition in which Advent can obviously only be the loser).
The plain fact, however, is we are participants in both of these cycles. If we completely neglect the Church’s calendar, the Church’s way of celebrating the Incarnation, then we risk missing the whole point of Christmas, failing (as the old saying goes) to see the forest for the trees. But, if we ignore – or, rather, pretend to ignore – the Christmas season as it is actually being experienced by most people in our world, then we also miss the point, because we ignore the world Christ has come into, which is, after all, the point of the Incarnation. God did not become human just for himself, but for us – propter nos hominess et propter nostram salutem descendit de coelis (“for us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven”).
Rather than helplessly lamenting (and scolding) the world we live in, I believe we can best appreciate Advent as an opportunity to enrich our contemporary celebration of Christmas, without negating the joy and festivity (and gift-giving) that make this such a special time of year. After all, at no other season does the busy, secular world seem so open to the Good News that is the Church’s story. Thus, Advent can be an opportunity for enriching all the joy and festivity around us with that sense of explicit longing for God’s kingdom which Advent highlights so well, and which is supposed to be what Christian life is about all the time in this interval between the first Christmas and the end.