Advent is an especially lovely season and we can make great use of it. With the beginning of the season of Advent, we begin a new liturgical year. The First Sunday of Advent is therefore the Church's "New Year's Day". In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Sunday begin at sundown of the day before when the faithful celebrate First Vespers. Advent begins the Christmas cycle.

Advent comes from the Latin word for an "arrival" or a "coming".   Advent means that the Lord is coming. Jesus Christ, our brother in our humanity and our God in His divinity is about to arrive. But He is comes to us in different ways. First, Jesus came to us at a specific point in history at Bethlehem about 2000 years ago. But in the Church's great feast of Christmas He mystically comes again. Second, the Lord, Alpha and Omega, will come to judge the living and the dead in the Second Coming. Third, the Redeemer comes to us in grace. He speaks to us in our consciences, he comes to us in the Eucharist and in the Word of God proclaimed. He arrives in the person of the beggar, the needy, the suffering, the oppressed. We must be ready to receive and welcome Him when He comes, however He comes.

Advent is a time of joy tinged with penance. Joy, because we can imagine nothing more sweet than the Christ Child and His Mother Mary's bliss at His coming to light. Penance because we must strive to be properly disposed to receive so great a gift of His presence. In the tradition of the Church, we faithful have done penance before great feasts. Christmas and Easter each have their penitential seasons in anticipation, Advent and Lent. The liturgical color used in the Latin Church for the liturgy during both Advent and Lent is purple, a sign of penance. In some places people may see blue used, which is done without the Church's approval. The Latin Church also emphasizes the penitential dimension of the season by directing the use of sparse ornaments in church and by legislating that instrumental music should not be used, except to sustain congregational singing. This is a kind of liturgical fast, which makes the joy and celebration of Christmas all that much more powerful by the contrast of the lean and muted season of Advent. Advent is a time of great joy, because we look forward to the beautiful feast of the Nativity, but it is joy stitched through with somber and focused spiritual preparation by doing penance.

To Do List

In preparations for Christmas, I think everyone, my wife and myself particularly, are busy checking items off our "to do" list as we race to that magical finish line of Christmas .  We have cards to write, cookies to bake, presents to buy, present to wrap, presents to distribute,  parties to go to,  people to see....we have lots of things on our to do list.

We are busy, but, hopefully, we are happily busy. It's not like were trying to get things done before we go into a hospital for an operation. It's not like we have a lot of work to do before we can submit our income tax on April 15th. Those are examples of times that we are busy but not very happy about it. As full as our days are, we are full anticipation. Christmas is right around the bend and something in all of us,  not just in the children, but in all of us,  just can't wait.

The people who gathered around John the Baptist were happily busy.  The gospel says they were full of enthusiasm and anticipation. "What is it that we have to do to prepare for God's Kingdom?"  they asked.  What are the things we should have on our "to do" list.

John told them to be charitable.  They should give the poor their surplus.  The tax collectors are told to be honest,  not using their position to enrich themselves.  The soldiers are told to stop harassing and intimidating people.  We are all told to fulfill our responsibilities in life in an honest and just manner.

He challenges us.  He challenges us to adopt a whole new attitude in life,  an attitude of sacrificial love.   This is the love that others will witness in us as a sign that the Kingdom of God is near.  St. Paul put it this way to the Philippians. "Let your gentleness be known to everyone,  for the Lord is near."

No one wants a gift from someone who is required by social custom to give them the gift.  No one cares what the cost of a gift is when that gift is given by someone who is lovable.  The first thing on our to do list for Christmas should be to look at how we treat other people and then make and effort to be kind,  considerate and lovable.

The second thing on our to do list should be to ask for God's help and forgiveness for those times that we go out of our way not to be lovable.  A little third grade girl once  said it so well,  I've been naughty."   I was wondering if she figured that God like Santa was keeping a list and checking it twice to see who's been naughty and who's been nice.  This little angel had grasped the point that she has freely chosen to do things that were wrong.  And she wanted forgiveness. 

In this age when no one wants to take responsibility for anything, when it is always someone's else fault, or society's fault, or our genes fault,  this little girl knew that she has done wrong and wants forgiveness.  This little angel is really lovable.  Then I thought, that's how God sees us when we recognize our responsibility for our actions and seek forgiveness.

A third thing we need to knock off our "to do” list to get ready for Christmas is to do some significant burying of hatchets.  And not in someone else's skull.  Christmas can be the most hypocritical day of the year when we go through the motions of being at peace with all while at the same time we are still looking for ways to repay insult with insult,  upset with upset,  nastiness with nastiness.  Anger for things that others have said to me or done to me swells up in me when I least expect it and wants to boil over in rage.   Now if I am warm and fuzzy with those who have occasioned this anger while I am looking for an opportunity to repay them for their viciousness,  I am a hypocrite.

Christmas is not about syrupy sentiments. Christmas is about a radical change in the world and a radical change in ourselves.  Maybe we can not forget a hurt.  But we have no right to let that hurt continually destroy us.  We enter into the realm of sin when we let the actions of others be an excuse for our joining them in breaking charity.

A final thing we need to be sure is on our “to do list”  is something that we just can't knock off because it is something that must be continual.  We must make room for an active prayer life in our own lives.  We need to give the Lord at least fifteen minutes a day.  A half hour would be much better.  Actually, we are not giving the Lord anything.  We are making this time for ourselves to come closer to the one who is calling us.  "You have got to be kidding.  I am so busy with things that I have to accomplish,  how do you think that I am going to squeeze in another half hour in this busiest of seasons."  If something is really important, we make the time for it.

We need to be with the Lord everyday,
  even if it means getting up a bit earlier or going to sleep a bit later.  People are roaming the world looking for miracles.  You want to experience a miracle?   Then,  spend a little time with the Lord and you'll be shocked that instead of missing this time from your busy schedule you will have a bit more time for what you need to do.  On top of that life will appear a bit less hectic.  And, if your mind is spinning so fast that you don't think you are able to pray,  then just say a rosary and let God worry about settling your mind down.

What a wonderful time of the year we are in.  But all of this is just a symbol of what a wonderful time of the world we are in.  The Lord is in our midst.  He is among us.  He is within usThe Kingdom of God is at hand and we have been chosen to be members of that Kingdom.  What are we to do?  We have to find the Messiah.  Is this hard?  Not really.  Jesus is not hiding from us. It is we who tend to hide from him.

Advent Wreath
 The Advent wreath is part of our long-standing Catholic tradition. However, the actual origins are uncertain. There is evidence of pre-Christian Germanic peoples using wreathes with lit candles during the cold and dark December days as a sign of hope in the future warm and extended-sunlight days of Spring. In Scandinavia during Winter, lighted candles were placed around a wheel, and prayers were offered to the god of light to turn “the wheel of the earth” back toward the sun to lengthen the days and restore warmth.

By the Middle Ages, the Christians adapted this tradition and used Advent wreathes as part of their spiritual preparation for Christmas. After all, Christ is “the Light that came into the world” to dispel the darkness of sin and to radiate the truth and love of God (cf. John 3:19-21). By 1500, both Catholics and Lutherans had more formal practices surrounding the Advent wreath.

The symbolism of the Advent wreath is beautiful. The wreath is made of various evergreens, signifying continuous life. Even these evergreens have a traditional meaning which can be adapted to our faith: The laurel signifies victory over persecution and suffering; pine, holly, and yew, immortality; and cedar, strength and healing. Holly also has a special Christian symbolism: The prickly leaves remind us of the crown of thorns, and one English legend tells of how the cross was made of holly. The circle of the wreath, which has no beginning or end, symbolizes the eternity of God, the immortality of the soul, and the everlasting life found in Christ. Any pine cones, nuts, or seedpods used to decorate the wreath also symbolize life and resurrection.

All together, the wreath of evergreens depicts the immortality of our soul and the new, everlasting life promised to us through Christ, the eternal Word of the Father, who entered our world becoming true man and who was victorious over sin and death through His own passion, death, and resurrection.

The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent. A tradition is that each week represents one thousand years, to sum to the 4,000 years from Adam and Eve until the Birth of the Savior. Three candles are purple and one is rose. The purple candles in particular symbolize the prayer, penance, and preparatory sacrifices and goods works undertaken at this time. The rose candle is lit on the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, when the vestments are also rose.   Gaudete Sunday is the Sunday of rejoicing, because the faithful have arrived at the midpoint of Advent, when their preparation is now half over and they are close to Christmas. The progressive lighting of the candles symbolizes the expectation and hope surrounding our Lord’s first coming into the world and the anticipation of His second coming to judge the living and the dead.

The light signifies Christ, the Light of the world. Some modern day adaptions include a white candle placed in the middle of the wreath, which represents Christ and is lit on Christmas Eve. Another tradition is to replace the three purple and one rose candles with four white candles, which will be lit throughout Christmas season.

In family practice, the Advent wreath is most appropriately lit at dinner time after the blessing of the food. A traditional prayer service using the Advent wreath:

On the First Sunday of Advent,  the family blesses the wreath, praying: O God, by whose word all things are sanctified, pour forth Thy blessing upon this wreath, and grant that we who use it may prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ and may receive from your abundant graces. Who lives and reigns forever. Amen.”  Then we continue for each of the days of the first week of Advent, O Lord, stir up your might, we beg you, and come, that by your protection we may deserve to be rescued from the threatening dangers of our sins and saved by your deliverance. Who lives and reigns forever. Amen.” The youngest child then lights one purple candle.

During the second week of Advent, we pray:  O Lord, stir up our hearts that we may prepare for your only begotten Son, that through His coming we may be made worthy to serve you with pure minds. Who lives and reigns forever. Amen.” The oldest child then lights the purple candle from the first week plus one more purple candle.

During the third week of Advent, we pray:  O Lord, we beg you, incline your ear to our prayers and enlighten the darkness of our minds by the grace of your visitation. Who lives and reigns forever. Amen.” The mother then lights the two previously lit purple candles plus the rose candle.

Finally,  during the fourth week of Advent, we pray:  O Lord, stir up your power, we pray you, and come; and with great might help us, that with the help of your grace, your merciful forgiveness may hasten what our sins impede. Who lives and reigns forever. Amen.”   Then light all of the candles of the wreath. 

Since Advent is a time to stir-up our faith in the Lord, the wreath and its prayers provide us a way to augment this special preparation for Christmas.  Moreover, this good tradition helps us to remain vigilant in our homes and not lose sight of the true meaning of Christmas.