Happy New Liturgical Year, and welcome to Advent. Of all of the seasons of the liturgical year, the two which are most misunderstood are Ordinary Time and Advent. We more-or-less know what Lent, Easter, and Christmas are about, but we terribly misunderstand Advent. Already, people are referring to this as “the Christmas season.” It’s not, and we should be thankful that it’s not.
What do I mean by that? In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “Advent is the season par excellence that invites us to hope in the God-Who-Comes.” But it’s also a season of hopeful preparation. December 25th marks the coming of Christ into the world at Christmas. Advent (from the Latin adventus, “arrival”) is the four week period in which we prepare for Christ’s arrival. Think about it this way: do you prefer for relatives to drop in unannounced, or do you prefer to have time to get the house in order? If it’s worth tidying up for a beloved friend or honored guest, how much more for the arrival of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? Or to approach is slightly differently: would you prefer to die unexpectedly, or to have a short period of time to get your spiritual house in order?
This explains why the season of Advent seems to run in reverse: for the first few weeks, the readings are all about the end of the world and the Second Coming; as we get closer to Christmas, we’ll switch to readings about Christ’s first entry into the world. Because Advent is about preparing us to encounter Christ, whether that’s at Christmas, or upon our death, or at His Second Coming. So what are some concrete ways that we can prepare for His Coming, so that we can make room to encounter Christ?
1. Mortification, Prayer, and Good Works
If a special guest is coming over, one of the first things you do is look around and see what needs cleaning up. You also take special measures not to make any more messes. The same is true here. Pope Benedict XVI began the 2010 season of Advent by praying that “by the grace of God, may our prayer, penance and good works in this season make us truly ready to see the Lord face to face.” And as Pope Pius XII explains:
154. In the period of Advent, for instance, the Church arouses in us the consciousness of the sins we have had the misfortune to commit, and urges us, by restraining our desires and practicing voluntary mortification of the body, to recollect ourselves in meditation, and experience a longing desire to return to God who alone can free us by His grace from the stain of sin and from its evil consequences.
This is the opposite of the way that secular society treats this season. While it calls us to greater indulgence (buy more! eat more! treat yourself!), the Church calls us to the exact opposite. But the Church doesn’t call us to a grim and joyless self-denial. Instead, it’s about dying to self in order to open ourselves up more to God and to neighbor. This “love of neighbour is a path that leads to the encounter with God, and that closing our eyes to our neighbour also blinds us to God,” in the words of Benedict XVI. And our opening ourselves up to God is all the more important, as Pope Francis points out:
Advent is a time truly to open our minds and hearts to him, “because when he comes to me, he may tell me what he wants me to do, which is not always what I want him to tell me”. It is important, therefore, that we never forget that “he is the Lord and he will tell me what he intends for me”.
2. Go to Confession & Communion
Once we’ve identified what needs cleaning up in our lives, the next step is to get to cleaning. And central to that is going to Confession. This also ensures that we can meet Jesus in the Eucharist with a pure heart, and receive the flood of graces from that sacred encounter. This is really how we ought to live every day: as Pope John Paul II has pointed out, “the Church of the new Advent, the Church that is continually preparing for the new coming of the Lord, must be the Church of the Eucharist and of Penance.” Our entire lives should be a sort of Advent, since we should always be preparing to meet Christ, but this season is a great time to start, if that’s not already a central part of your spiritual life.
3. Read the Bible More
We encounter Jesus Christ in a unique and radical way in the Eucharist, but we also encounter Him in reading Sacred Scripture. Sacrosanctum Concilium (the Second Vatican Council document dealing with the Liturgy) encouraged liturgical “Bible services” during Advent, and Pope Benedict XVI has called for this to be a season of greater attention to listening to God’s voice in the preaching of Sacred Scripture:
In the Season of Advent we too are called to listen to God’s voice, that cries out in the desert of the world through the Sacred Scriptures, especially when they are preached with the power of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, faith grows all the stronger the more it allows itself to be illumined by the divine word, by “whatever”, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “was written in former days [and] written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15:4).
If you’re not in the regular habit of reading Scripture, start now. If you’re on the cusp about whether or not to join a Bible study, this might be a good time to follow that prompting.
4. Get to Know Jesus’ Mom
The Virgin Mother, heavy with child, is quite literally the personification of Advent. She awaits Christ, even as she experiences Him internally, as she grows within to make more room for Jesus. If you want to get to know Christ, if you want to practice Advent, you should look to her. The Biblical advent of Christ is centered, particularly in St. Luke’s Gospel, around the Virgin Mary. The Church repeatedly points us towards her to see what Advent looks like. For example, John Paul II says:
Advent is the Marian season par excellence, because Mary is the woman who awaited and welcomed the Son of God made man in an exemplary way. May the Virgin Mary help us to open the doors of our hearts to Christ, Redeemer of man and of history; may she teach us to be humble, because God looks upon the lowly; may she enable us to grow in understanding the value of prayer, of inner silence, of listening to God’s Word; may she spur us to seek God’s will deeply and sincerely, even when this upsets our plans; may she encourage us while we wait for the Lord, sharing our time and energies with those in need.
And Mary is, in particular, a model for Advent because of her attention to the promptings of the Lord, as Benedict XVI shows:
The model of listening is the Virgin Mary: “As we contemplate in the Mother of God a life totally shaped by the word, we realize that we too are called to enter into the mystery of faith, whereby Christ comes to dwell in our lives. Every Christian believer, St Ambrose reminds us, in some way interiorly conceives and gives birth to the word of God” (Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, n. 28).
And Pope Francis calls upon us to emulate her spiritual disposition of hope:
The season of Advent, which we begin again today, restores this horizon of hope, a hope which does not disappoint for it is founded on God’s Word. A hope which does not disappoint, simply because the Lord never disappoints! He is faithful! He does not disappoint! Let us think about and feel this beauty.
The model of this spiritual disposition, of this way of being and journeying in life, is the Virgin Mary. A simple girl from the country who carries within her heart the fullness of hope in God! In her womb, God’s hope took flesh, it became man, it became history: Jesus Christ. Her Magnificat is the canticle of the People of God on a journey, and of all men and women who hope in God and in the power of his mercy. Let us allow ourselves to be guided by her, she who is mother, a mamma and knows how to guide us. Let us allow ourselves to be guided by her during this season of active waiting and watchfulness.
So how do we follow this model? The Rosary is an obvious answer: prayerfully reflecting upon the wonderful works of God within the life of Mary and the life of Jesus Christ. The Church also gives us a special Marian hymn for Advent, the Alma Redemptoris Mater:
Alma Redemptoris Mater, quae pervia caeli
Porta manes, et stella maris, sucurre cadenti,
Surgere qui curat populo: tu quae genuisti,
Natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem,
Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore
Sumens illud Ave, peccatorum miserere.
The Breviary gives translates it in this way:
Loving Mother of the Redeemer, Gate of heaven, star of the sea,
Assist your people of have fallen yet strive to rise again.
To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator,
yet remained a virgin after as before.
You who received Gabriel’s joyful greeting, have pity on us poor sinners.
It is with this hymn that clergy and religious typically end their night prayers during Advent, and it would be salutary practice for anyone seeking to grow in their relationship to Mary.
One of the simplest, perhaps most obvious, ways of preparing for Christ is through the two “countdown clocks” traditionally used by Christians. I mean here the Advent wreath, and the Advent calendar. The Advent calendar counts down, day by day, until the coming of Christ. The wreath, meanwhile, simply marks the four weeks of Advent:
6. Make a Pilgrimage to the Holy Door
This Advent is a special one, because December 8th begins the holy Year for Mercy, and the opening of a pilgrimage site, as pilgrims are able, during this year, to pass through the Holy Door of the Cathedral of Rome (the Basilica of Saint John Lateran). The last time this happened was in 2000, at which time John Paul II connected it to Advent:
Preparing for the Lord’s Birth this year means preparing to enter through the Holy Door, the symbol of the passage to new and eternal life, which Jesus Christ came to open to every human being.
This accentuates the penitential dimension, already present in the Advent season and vividly recalled by the person of John the Baptist, who teaches, precisely, that the way of the Lord is prepared by changing of one’s mentality and life (cf. Mt 3: 1-3).
This time around, Pope Francis has expanded access, for those of us who can’t get to Rome easily by announcing “in every local church, at the cathedral – the mother church of the faithful in any particular area – or, alternatively, at the co-cathedral or another church of special significance, a Door of Mercy will be opened for the duration of the Holy Year.” So no matter where you are, or what your financial means, there should be a pilgrimage site to which you can travel. Here’s what that looks like:
The practice of pilgrimage has a special place in the Holy Year, because it represents the journey each of us makes in this life. Life itself is a pilgrimage, and the human being is a viator, a pilgrim travelling along the road, making his way to the desired destination. Similarly, to reach the Holy Door in Rome or in any other place in the world, everyone, each according to his or her ability, will have to make a pilgrimage. This will be a sign that mercy is also a goal to reach and requires dedication and sacrifice. May pilgrimage be an impetus to conversion: by crossing the threshold of the Holy Door, we will find the strength to embrace God’s mercy and dedicate ourselves to being merciful with others as the Father has been with us.
May these six tools help you to expand your capacity to receive Christ this Advent!