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 begger, 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 millennial 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.
The Advent Wreath
The Advent Wreath, a venerable European tradition, can be a way to involve even very little children in learning about Christian preparation - not only for celebrating Our Lord's birth, but to make our hearts truly ready to receive Him.
The wreath's symbolism of the advent (coming) of Light into the world is clear. The gradual lighting of the four candles, one on each Suday of the Advent season, combined with the liturgical colors of the candles (purple is the penitential color used during Advent and Lent; rose is a liturgical color used only on Gaudete Sunday in Advent and Laetare Sunday in Lent) help to symbolize not only our expectation and hope in Our Savior's first coming into the world, but also in his Second Coming as Judge at the end of the world.
The wreath itself is also symbolic. The circle of evergreen in which the candles are placed represents everlasting life. The seedpods, nuts and cones used to decorate the wreath are symbolic of resurrection, and fruits represent the nourishing fruitfulness of the Christian life.
Gathering materials for the wreath-perhaps on an outing in the park or woods, or even in the backyard- and assembling it at home is an interesting family project in which even the youngest children can participate.
On the first Sunday of Advent, you may sprinkle the wreath with holy water and bless it before the first purple candle is lit. The appropriate Advent collect can be said as the candle[s] are lit each day of the week, followed by the blessing before meals, if you use the wreath at mealtime. The second Sunday two purple candles are lit; the third Sunday, two purple and one rose; and all candles are lit on the fourth Sunday.
Children who are old enough can take turns lighting the candles. (The littlest ones can blow them out at the end of the meal.) If you use the wreath at mealtime, it is helpful to place it on a tray or platter so it can be moved, and to protect the table from candle wax.
On Christmas Day, all the greens and decorations are replaced with fresh ones, and four new white candles, symbolizing Christ, replace the colored ones and are burned throughout the Christmas season. The Advent season is a good time to pray the Angelus at family meals.