Preparing for Christmas
Today, the First Sunday of Advent, is the first day of the new liturgical year, and the Church wants to remind us that although it is the beginning, we must also remember our end. Thus in today’s Gospel (Matthew 24:37-44), we have a reminder of the Last Judgement and of Our Lord’s Second Coming. Our Lord likens it to the days before the Great Flood, when people were making merry until the flood came suddenly and swept everything away. This is how it will be at the end of time. “Therefore you must stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
Advent runs for four Sundays and it’s also a time when we prepare for the first coming of the Redeemer at Christmas, and so we must prepare well in order to receive the graces He wants to give us in this holy season. So what are we supposed to do? In the early Church, Christmas was preceded by forty days of fasting, like the forty day fast in Lent prepares us for the joy of Easter. It began on the feast of St Martin on 11th November, and was called ‘Martin’s Lent’. Today the Church no longer requires this fast, but She still wants us to make some sacrifices. We are reminded of this by the purple vestments and the suppression of the Gloria at Mass.
So Advent for us ought to be anticipatory, and what we do in this time should dispose us to being joyful at Christmas, because we are preparing our souls for the coming of our Redeemer and Saviour, which will be a time of feasting. Therefore, in order to feast well at Christmas, it would be a good idea now to give up some luxury so as to have greater rejoicing at Christmas. This would be a good way of anticipating Our Lord’s coming. We don’t have to go out of our way to be penitential as we do in Lent, but we shouldn’t be seeking comfort. Another good way of preparing would be to accept the difficulties and frustrations of life and try not to become upset by them. Decide to accept it as part of the season in a spirit of penance, knowing that at the end of time every tear will be wiped away, and there will be no more mourning or weeping or pain (Apocalypse 21:4).
Then there are our decorations at home. Although there is no rule about this, we don’t need to put them all up in one go. Remember Christmas begins on Christmas Day and traditionally runs until Candlemas on 2nd February. So there could be a progression in our home decorations during Advent. This is what the Liturgy does as it becomes apparent in the prayers during the second half of Advent that the Lord is drawing nearer. So you could perhaps add things to your decorations each Sunday. This can also be a great way of engaging children. As humans, being made up of body and soul, we need material things like colours and symbols to remind us of things. We use black, for example, at Requiem or Funeral Masses as a sign of mourning. Red is a colour of martyrdom and the shedding of blood, and we use white or gold as a sign of joy at Christmas and Easter. The purple of Advent is a colour of penance and a sign that we are waiting for or anticipating something.
One important decoration is the Advent Wreath. It’s in the shape of a circle symbolizing eternity, because God has no beginning or end. It’s also like a crown of victory with the prickly holly and the red berries symbolizing Our Lord’s Crown of Thorns and His Precious Blood. The use of evergreens reminds us of eternal life with Christ, and we have the flame of the candles because Christ is the Light of the World. There are four candles for the four Sundays, which according to tradition, each represent one thousand years which together symbolize the four thousand years that humanity waited for the coming of the Saviour. The central white candle represents Christ Himself and is a symbol of purity and is lit at Midnight Mass.
Finally, we priests would strongly encourage you to prepare for Christmas by making a good sacramental Confession. As St Paul urges us in the Second Reading: “The night is almost over, it will be daylight soon – let us give up all the things we prefer to do under cover of the dark; let us arm ourselves and appear in the light” (Romans 13:12).
Fr Paul Gillham, IC