Catholic Classroom: The Purpose of Advent
Question: What is the season of Advent, and why do we celebrate it?
Though retail displays, coffee cups, and shopping mall music might give the impression that Christmas has arrived and is a two-month long season, the universal Church knows otherwise. Since as early as the 5th century, the Church has set aside the weeks before Christmas to be a special season: Advent. The Season of Advent serves three very important purposes in the life of the Church, and is distinct from, but related to the Christmas season.
1. Advent begins the Church year
The Church’s liturgical calendar does not begin on January 1, as it does for most of the rest of the world. Instead, it begins on the first Sunday of Advent. Advent means “coming”. The Church helpfully celebrates Christmas around the winter solstice (connecting Jesus, the Light of the World, to the increase in sunlight) The season of Advent falls during the short, dark days that precede the solstice. For the Church, the year begins with acknowledgment of the darkness, and intentional waiting for the coming of the Light – Jesus.
Just as the Gospels begin by telling of the coming of the Savior – how God came to dwell among us, the Church begins its year by disposing itself for the coming of God among us. During Advent, we hear prophesies from the Old Testament about the coming of the Messiah, accounts of the prophet John the Forerunner/Baptist, who announced Jesus’ First Coming to his community, and warnings from Jesus in the Gospel about watching for his Second Coming.
For the Church, the beginning is a very good place to start: Why do we need a Savior—a Light? When was his coming proclaimed? To whom was it proclaimed? What can we take away spiritually from the promise of his coming, and the knowledge that he did come? What do we do now to remain vigilant and hope-filled, proclaiming joy to the world on the one hand, but longing for Christ’s return on the other?
2. Advent is a time for Penance
Even many practicing Catholics might not realize that Advent is a Penitential Season. The purple vestments worn by priests during Advent are the same that they wear throughout Lent. As we said above, the Church’s year begins with acknowledgement of our need for the Savior – for Christians, this is part of penitence. We say in one breath: we are sinners and we need a Savior.
For much of the Church’s history, Advent was a season of fasting, much like Lent. Christians refrained from eating meat and drinking alcohol. This practice continues among Orthodox Christians. You might be familiar with the “Feast” of the Seven Fishes that is often practiced by Italians and those of Italian heritage on Christmas Eve – this is a vestige of a time when Catholics would have abstained from meat throughout Advent, including on the vigil of Christmas. In southern Italy, this “feast” is called “The Vigil”, and is a practice of intentional waiting for the birth of the Savior, celebrated at Midnight Mass.
The season of Advent allows Christians to recall that the Incarnation – the coming of God among us – brings us great joy because we are sinners. It is appropriate that we would take up practices like prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and Confession to remind ourselves that we are sinners. How much more disposed to joy on Christmas day will we be if we have spent the 4 weeks prior knowing how deeply we need Jesus?
3. Advent isn’t just about remembering Christmas
The Incarnation is the starting point of our Salvation – the moment that God enters humanity so that He might eventually be nailed to a cross for us. So remembering God’s coming among us makes sense for Christians. The birth of Jesus is obviously a source of great joy for us.
But as we think about Jesus’ First Coming, we can’t help but look for his Second Coming – and the liturgical readings in this season certainly direct our attention to that. The story is not over: Jesus came, and died, and rose again, yes. But Jesus also promised that he would come again, and we’re still waiting for that part.
While the course of history and the relationship between God and humans was forever altered by the Incarnation, the restitution of all things has not yet come. There is still injustice, still suffering, still oppression – all the things that made God send us a Savior. And while the world has a living Savior, if it would accept him, it needs his return. And when he returns, he will judge the living and the dead, and build his perfect Kingdom here on earth. Finally, the world will be under his perfect dominion, and injustice and oppression will cease forever.
During Advent, the whole body of Christ on earth is the voice in the wilderness crying out for that Second Coming: Come, Lord Jesus.