On Sunday December 3rd we celebrated New Year’s Day – in the liturgical calendar of the Church that is. (And in case you don’t believe me, note that we have now moved from the year A in the Sunday cycle to year B and from year 1 to year 2 in the weekday cycle). Keeping this in mind helps us to focus on Advent in the correct way: Advent is not a penitential winding down of the old year, but a hopeful start of the new.
There is perhaps a natural tendency to react against the commercialisation of Christmas, or better said of Advent itself, by stressing the penitential aspect of the season. Advent is of course externally very like Lent: both seasons use violet as the liturgical colour, drop the Gloria on Sundays and are more spartan in the use of song and decoration in churches. We would be making a mistake however, to approach Advent as a pre-Christmas Lent. The tenor of Advent is very different from that of Lent for it is, in the words of the liturgical documents, a time of “devout and joyful expectation”. Joy must already be present in Advent in a way it is not present in Lent. Advent’s austerity is not so much in penance for past excesses but rather in a spirit of vigilance for the future coming of Christ: “Because you do not know when the master of the house is coming, evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn; if he comes unexpectedly, he must not find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!” (Mark 13:37, from the Gospel of the First Sunday of Advent).
Pope Francis, in various Advent messages, has stressed the centrality of hope at this season. “Let us allow ourselves, then, to teach hope, to faithfully await the coming of the Lord, and whatever desert we might have in our life will become a flowering garden” (General Audience, Dec.7, 2016). Perhaps we could add that the sobriety of Advent is there to sharpen the appetite for coming of Christ. Children teach us a great lesson in this regard, as they approach the arrival of Santa with their Christmas presents with a crescendo of unbearable expectation. Perhaps we adults should aim to approach the great Christmas gift of God’s only Son with a similar sense of tantalising expectation?