It’s a good bet that by the time you read this you’ll already have been subjected to “Jingle Bells” (selling everything from car mufflers to Chia Pets) more times than the human ear was designed to tolerate. It serves as a clarion yearly reminder that Christmas Is Here Again.
Except, it isn’t.
What is here, is Advent. And that, says Bishop Kevin Vann, is reason enough for celebration.
“It’s the beginning of our Liturgical Year,” says Bishop Vann, “and there’s a kind of overlap at this time of year from the old traditions when Advent was a time when we anticipated the second coming of Christ and at the same time rejoiced at his first coming. There are wonderful readings about this in Isaiah. We have so many wonderful traditions associated with Advent, as a separate season from Christmas, and we should take full advantage of them. It’s a matter of taking the time to enjoy this particular season, and the beauty of it.”
Mentally and spiritually leapfrogging past the four weeks of Advent and keeping the mind fixed firmly on Christmas robs us of a significant four weeks of the Liturgical Year, says Bishop Vann—a season that is brief, but is unusually rich in symbolism, sights, sounds, smells, spirituality and a mood of reverential anticipation.
“There are things we can do every day during Advent to grow in our faith and to deepen our appreciation of what the prophets had to tell us—the beauty of the message and the wonderful ways our traditions bring this to us,” says Bishop Vann.
Among the most notable traditions of the season:
The Advent wreath. Of German origin, it is probably the most familiar of the Advent customs. It is made of evergreen boughs bound in a circle, symbolizing the many years of waiting for a redeemer, as well as the years waiting for his second coming. The wreath supports four candles—three purple and one rose-colored. The three purple candles, symbolizing penitence, are lit on the first two Sundays and on the fourth Sunday of Advent and the rose candle, symbolizing joy, is lit on the third Sunday, also known as Gaudete (meaning rejoice) Sunday. When the candles have been lighted each Sunday, a reading from Scripture may be chosen, often from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah or the Gospel of Luke.
The Advent calendar. Another German tradition from the 19th century. As a reminder of the sacred nature of the season and also as an incentive to prayer, Bishop Vann suggests acquiring one in which Scripture verses are revealed when the little panels are opened each day.
Saint Nicholas. The original Santa Claus, his feast is on Dec. 6. A fourth century bishop of Myra, Nicholas was born in what is now Turkey and at one time worked on his family’s fishing fleet. Known as the patron saint of travelers, sailors and merchants, Nicholas also was famous for his miracles and generous gifts to the poor, and he is particularly associated with kindness toward children. In Holland, the Dutch nickname for Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, became Santa Claus when the Dutch came to the New World.
Gift giving. Bishop Vann suggests drawing on the example of Saint Nicholas in our seasonal gift giving. “He was an example that gifts are for others,” says Bishop Vann. Also, he adds, gift giving can be used to commemorate one of the most significant events of the season.
“In many countries, such as Germany and Italy, gifts are given on the Feast of the Epiphany because that’s when the three kings brought their gifts to the infant Jesus,” he says. “We might do well to think of doing some of our gift giving on that day.”
And, he says, gifts need not be tangible. Volunteering at hospitals or taking meals to the poor during Advent, and even visiting family members and friends are ways to keep our faith during Advent.
Scripture, specifically the O Antiphons. The O Antiphons refer to the seven antiphons that are recited or chanted before the Magnificat during Vespers of the Liturgy of the Hours during the octave before Christmas (the week from Dec. 17 through Dec. 23). Each antiphon is an invocation of God that highlights a different title for the Messiah, such as O root of Jesse, O key of David and O Emmanuel. In fact, they form the verses to “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
“They’re prophetic, from the prophets, they relate to the birth of Christ, and they’re just wonderful,” says Bishop Vann.”
Something to learn along with the O Antiphons: Rorate Coeli (“A great Advent hymn,” says Bishop Vann). The text is taken from Isaiah 45:8, and refers to the longing of the Church for the coming of the Messiah: “Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the just. Let the earth be opened and send forth a Savior.”