The focus of Advent is preparation for the coming of the Lord -- both in commemoration of His Nativity and His coming again at the end of time. Though most Protestants -- and far too many Catholics -- see this time of year as a part of the "Christmas Season," it isn't; the Christmas season does not begin until the first Mass at Christmas Eve, and doesn't end liturgically until the Octave of the Epiphany on January 14. It goes on in the spiritual sense until Candlemas on February 2, when all celebrations of Christ's Childhood give way to Septuagesima and Lent.
The mood of this season is one of somber spiritual preparation that increases in joy with each day, and the gaudy "Christmas" commercialism that surrounds it in the Western world should be overcome as much as possible. The singing of Christmas carols (which comes earlier and earlier each year), the talk of "Christmas" as a present reality, the decorated trees and the parties -- these things are "out of season" for Catholics; we should strive to keep the Seasons of Advent holy and penitential, always remembering, as they say, that "He is the reason for the Season."
To sum up the similarities and differences between Advent and Lent as penitential seasons, there's this, by Fr. Lawrence Smith, from the Remnant Newspaper, 15 December 2003:
Advent is the time to make ready for Christ to live with us. Lent is the time to make us ready to die with Christ. Advent makes Lent possible. Lent makes salvation possible. Advent is the time when eternity approaches earth. Lent is the time when time reaches consummation in Christ's eternal Sacrifice to the Father. Advent leads to Christ's life in time on earth. Lent leads to Christ's eternal Life in Heaven. The Cross -- through the Mass, penance, and mortification -- is the bridge connecting Advent and Lent, Christ and His Church, man and God.
Each of the Church's penitential seasons is a dying to the world with the goal of attaining new life in Christ.
Catholic apologist Jacob Michael wrote something very interesting about how secular America sees "Christmas" as beginning after Thanksgiving and ending on 25 December, and then makes "New Years Resolutions" at the beginning of the secular year:
...what Christians do (or should be doing!) during Advent and leading up to Christmas is a foreshadowing of what they will do during the days of their lives that lead up to the Second Coming; what non-Christians refuse to do during Advent, and put off until after Christmas, is precisely a foreshadowing of what they will experience at the Second Coming.
We Christians are to prepare for the Coming of Christ before He actually comes -- and that Coming is symbolized and recalled at Christmas. Non-Christians miss this season of preparation, and then scramble for six days after the 25th to make their resolutions. By then, however, it's too late -- Christmas has come and gone, Our Lord has already made His visitation to the earth, and He has found them unprepared. This is precisely what will take place at the Second Coming, when those who have put off for their entire lives the necessary preparations will suddenly be scrambling to put their affairs in order. Unfortunately, by then it will have been too late, and there will be no time for repentance. The Second Coming will be less forgiving than the Incarnation. There will be no four-week warning period before the Second Coming, like we get during Advent. There will be no six-day period of grace after the Second Coming during which to make resolutions and self-examination, like the secular world does from Dec. 26 until Jan. 1.
So please, restore Advent and don't think "Christmas is here" until it truly comes. One way to help focus on the theme of preparation is to read the parables of The Fig Tree, The Man Going on a Long Journey, The Faithful and Wicked Stewards, and The Ten Virgins in the 24th and 25th chapters of St. Matthew's Gospel. Another way to help you do this is to think of the Saint who embodies the spirit of this Season more than any other: the great St. John the Baptist. If you have an icon of him, venerate it especially now. Make special prayers to him and consider the message of this "voice of one crying in the desert": "Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight his paths." You will note that the readings of the second, third, and fourth Sundays of Advent focus on St. John, the earthly herald of Christ's coming whom St. Ephraem likened to the Star of Bethlehem, the Heavenly herald of His coming.
St. Ephraem also wrote these words which recall the Forerunner's message of preparation:
To prevent his disciples from asking the time of his coming, Christ said: About that hour no one knows, neither the angels nor the Son. It is not for you to know times or moments. He has kept those things hidden so that we may keep watch, each of us thinking that he will come in our own day. If he had revealed the time of his coming, his coming would have lost its savour: it would no longer be an object of yearning for the nations and the age in which it will be revealed. He promised that he would come but did not say when he would come, and so all generations and ages await him eagerly. Though the Lord has established the signs of his coming, the time of their fulfilment has not been plainly revealed. These signs have come and gone with a multiplicity of change; more than that, they are still present. His final coming is like his first. As holy men and prophets waited for him, thinking that he would reveal himself in their own day, so today each of the faithful longs to welcome him in his own day, because Christ has not made plain the day of his coming.
He has not made it plain for this reason especially, that no one may think that he whose power and dominion rule all numbers and times is ruled by fate and time. He described the signs of his coming; how could what he has himself decided be hidden from him? Therefore, he used these words to increase respect for the signs of his coming, so that from that day forward all generations and ages might think that he would come again in their own day.
Keep watch; when the body is asleep nature takes control of us, and what is done is not done by our will but by force, by the impulse of nature. When deep listlessness takes possession of the soul, for example, faint-heartedness or melancholy, the enemy overpowers it and makes it do what it does not will. The force of nature, the enemy of the soul, is in control.
When the Lord commanded us to be vigilant, he meant vigilance in both parts of man: in the body, against the tendency to sleep; in the soul, against lethargy and timidity. As Scripture says: Wake up, you just, and I have risen, and am still with you; and again, Do not lose heart.
Advent is also season of preparation in a more mundane sense. Homes are cleaned from top to bottom, and Christmas cookies and cakes are often made by the hundreds, for family and to give out to friends and aquaintances when Christmas finally arrives.
Christmas trees shouldn't be decorated until Christmas Eve because Advent itself should remain penitential, but time can be wonderfully spent making Christmas Tree ornaments throughout the Season for when Christmas finally arrives. Here is a recipe for Baker's Clay which you can use to do just that.
Since Victorian times, Catholics send Christmas cards at this time of year, always with religious themes and avoiding the secularized language and images so prevalent today (i.e., "Season's Greetings" as opposed to "Merry Christmas"; Santa or Rudolph instead of Mother and Child, etc.) Always, the emphasis should be on Christ! Real Christmas cards are getting more and more difficult to find; buying them early from a Catholic Bookstore is a good idea. (By the way, "merry" originally meant, and should mean to Catholics, "blessed and peaceful," not party-like as in "merry-making." For ex., the carol, "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" has a comma after the "merry" and addresses "gentlemen," not "merry gentlemen." It means "God keep you peaceful and blessed, men!" And on another note, the angel never said to the shepherds, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men" as the King James version reads; he said, "Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace to men of good will" (Luke 2:14) -- a vastly different sentiment that doesn't lead to the false idea that there can be peace among ill-willed men. Please avoid cards inscribed with the false, non-sensical rendering of the verse!)
At any rate, cards should be sent around two weeks before Christmas (around the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe) to ensure they arrive in time. Cards received are often displayed -- in albums, randomly on tables, or by fastening them to ribbons which hang on a wall.
And as with the secularized "holiday" cards, Catholics should avoid greeting people during this season with "Happy holidays!" and the like. "Merry Christmas" is the proper greeting -- and if one wants to get technical about it, Catholics should say "Blessed Advent" up until the first Mass on Christmas Eve, and "Merry Christmas" thereafter for the twelve days of Christmas (until the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January). People might not understand, but this affords you an opportunity to explain.
Advent candles, Jesse Trees, Christmas cribs, and Advent calendars are all used during Advent and each is described on its own page, but one particular Advent custom that should be mentioned here and which families might want to consider beginning on Advent Sunday is known as "Christkindl" (Christ Child). Maria Von Trapp describes it thus:
Once more the mother appears with the bowl, which she passes around. This time the pieces of paper contain the names of the members of the family and are neatly rolled up, because the drawing has to be done in great secrecy. The person whose name one has drawn is now in one's special care. From this day until Christmas, one has to do as many little favors for him or her as one can. One has to provide at least one surprise every single day but without ever being found out. This creates a wonderful atmosphere of joyful suspense, kindness, and thoughtfulness. Perhaps you will find that somebody has made your bed or shined your shoes or has informed you, in a disguised handwriting on a holy card, that "a rosary has been said for you today" or a number of sacrifices have been offered up. This new relationship is called "Christkindl" (Christ Child) in the old country, where children believe that the Christmas tree and the gifts under it are brought down by the Christ Child himself.
The beautiful thing about this particular custom is that the relationship is a reciprocal one. The person whose name I have drawn and who is under my care becomes for me the helpless little Christ Child in the manger; and as I am performing these many little acts of love and consideration for someone in the family I am really doing them for the Infant of Bethlehem, according to the word, "And he that shall receive one such little child in my name, receiveth me." That is why this particular person turns into "my Christkindl." At the same time I am the "Christkindl" also for the one I am caring for because I want to imitate the Holy Child and render all those little services in the same spirit as He did in that small house of Nazareth, when as a child He served His Mother and His foster father with a similar love and devotion.
Many times throughout these weeks can be heard such exclamations as, "I have a wonderful Christkindl this year!" or, "Goodness, I forgot to do something for my Christkindl and it is already suppertime!" It is a delightful custom, which creates much of the true Christmas spirit and ought to be spread far and wide.
"The Mystery of Advent"
from Dom Gueranger's "Liturgical Year"
If, having described the characteristic features of Advent which distinguish it from the rest of the year, we would penetrate into the profound Mystery which occupies the mind of the Church during this season, we find that the Mystery of this Coming, or Advent, of Jesus is at once simple and threefold. It is simple for it is the one same Son of God that is coming; it is threefold because He comes at three different times and in three different ways.
'In the first coming,' says St. Bernard, 'He comes in the flesh and in weakness; in the second, He comes in spirit and power; in the third, He comes in glory and majesty; and the second coming is the means whereby we pass from the first to the third.'
This, then, is the mystery of Advent. Let us now listen to an explanation of this threefold visit of Christ, given to us by Peter of Blois, in his third sermon de Adventu: 'There are three comings of Our Lord; the first in the flesh; the second in the soul; the third at judgment. The first was at midnight according to the words of the Gospel: At Midnight there was a cry made, Lo, the Bridegroom cometh! But this first coming is long since past for Christ has been seen on the earth and has conversed among men. We are now in the second coming, provided only we are such as that He may thus come to us; for He has said that if we love Him, He will come to us and take up His abode with us. So that this second coming is full of uncertainty for us; for who, save the spirit of God, knows them that are of God? They that are raised out of themselves by the desire of heavenly things, know indeed when He comes, but whence He cometh or whither He goeth they know not. As for the third coming, it is most certain that it will be, most uncertain when it will be; for nothing is more sure than death, and nothing less sure than the hour of death. When they shall say, peace and security, says the apostle, then shall sudden destruction come upon them, as the pains upon her that is with child, and they shall not escape. So that the first coming was humble and hidden, the second is mysterious and full of love, the third will be majestic and terrible. In His first coming, Christ was judged by men unjustly; in His second, He renders us just by His grace; in His first, a lamb; in His last, a lion; in the one between the two, the tenderest of friends.'
The holy Church, therefore, during Advent, awaits in tears and with ardour the arrival of her Jesus in His first coming. For this, she borrows the fervid expressions of the prophets, to which she joins her own supplications. These longings for the Messias expressed by the Church, are not a mere commemoration of the desires of the ancient Jewish people; they have a reality and efficacy of their own, an influence in the great act of God's munificence, whereby He gave us His own Son. From all eternity, the prayers of the ancient Jewish people and the prayers of the Christian Church ascended together to the prescient hearing of God; and it was after the receiving and granting them, that He sent, in the appointed time, that blessed Dew upon the earth, which made it bud forth the Savior.
The Church aspires also to the second coming, the consequence of the first, which consists, as we have just seen, in the visit of the Bridegroom to the bride. This coming takes place, each year, at the feast of Christmas, when the new birth of the Son of God delivers the faithful from that yoke of bondage, under which the enemy would oppress them. The Church, therefore, during Advent, prays that she may be visited by Him who is her Head and her Spouse; visited in her hierarchy; visited in her members, of whom some are living, and some are dead, but may come to life again; visited, lastly, in those who are not in communion with her, and even in the very infidels, that so they may be converted to the true light, which shines even for them. The expressions of the liturgy which the Church makes use of to ask for this loving and invisible coming, are those which she employs when begging for the coming of Jesus in the flesh; for the two visits are for the same object. In vain would the Son of God have come, nineteen hundred years ago, to visit and save mankind, unless He came again for each one of us and at every moment of our lives, bringing to us and cherishing within us that supernatural life, of which He and His holy Spirit are the sole principle.
But this annual visit of the Spouse does not content the Church; she aspires after a third coming which will complete all things by opening the gates of eternity. She has caught up the last words of her Spouse, 'Surely I am coming quickly,' and she cries out to Him, 'Ah! Lord Jesus Come!' She is impatient to be loosed from her present temporal state; she longs for the number of the elect to be filled up, and to see appear, in the clouds of heaven, the sign of her Deliverer and her Spouse. Her desires, expressed by her Advent liturgy, go even as far as this: and here we have the explanation of these words of the beloved disciple in his prophecy: 'The nuptials of the Lamb are come, and His wife hath prepared herself.'
But the day of His last coming to her will be a day of terror. The Church frequently trembles at the very thought of that awful judgment, in which all mankind is to be tried. She calls it 'a day of wrath, on which, as David and the Sibyl have foretold, the world will be reduced to ashes; a day of weeping and of fear.' Not that she fears for herself, since she knows that this day will for ever secure for her the crown, as being the bride of Jesus; but her maternal heart is troubled at the thought that, on the same day, so many of her children will be on the left hand of that Judge, and havng no share with the elect, will be bound hand and foot, and cast into the darkness, where there shall be everlasting weeping and gnashing of teeth. This is the reason why the Church, in the liturgy of Advent, so frequently speaks of the coming of Christ as a terrible coming, and selects from the Scriptures those passages which are most calcualated to awaken a salutary fear in the mind of such of her children as may be sleeping the sleep of sin.
This, then, is the threefold mystery of Advent. The liturgical forms in which it is embodied, are of two kinds: the one consists of prayers, passages from the Bible, and similar formulae, in all of which, words themselves are employed to convey the sentiments which we have been explaining; the other consists of extermal rites peculiar to this holy time, which by speaking to the outward senses, complete the expressiveness of the chants and words.
First of all, there is the number of the days of Advent. Forty was the number originally adopted by the Church, and it is still maintained in the Ambrosian liturgy, and in the eastern Church. If, at a later period, the Church of Rome, and those which follow her liturgy, have changed the number of days, the same idea is still expressed in the four weeks which have been substituted for the forty days. The new birth of our Redeemer takes place after four weeks, as the first nativity happened after four thousand years, according to the Hebrew and Vulgate chronology.
As in Lent, so likewise during Advent, marriage is not solemnized, lest wordly joy should distract Christians from those serious thoughts wherewith the expected coming of the sovereign Judge ought to inspire them or from that dearly cherished hope which the friends of the Bridegroom have of being soon called to the eternal nuptial-feast.
The people are forcibly reminded of the sadness which fills the heart of the Church, by the sombre colour of the vestments. Excepting on the feasts of the saints, purple is the coulour she uses; the deacon does not wear the dalmatic, nor the sub-deacon the tunic. Formerly it was the custom, in some places, to wear black vestments. This mourning of the Church shows how fully she unites herself with those true Israelites of old who, clothed in sack-cloth and ashes, waited for the Messias, and bewailed Sion that she had not her beauty, and Juda, that the sceptre had been taken from him, till He should come who was to be sent, the expectation of nations. It also signifies the works of penance, whereby she prepares for the second coming, full as it is of sweetness and mystery, which is realized in the souls of men, in proportion as they appreciate the tender love of that divine Guest, who has said: 'My delights are to be with the children of men.' It expresses, thirdly, the desolation of this bride who yearns after her Beloved, who is long a-coming. Like the turtle dove, she moans her loneliness, longing for the voice which will say to her: 'Come from Libanus, my bride! come and thou shalt be crowned. Thou has responded to my heart.'
The Church also, during Advent, excepting on the feasts of saints, suppresses the angelic canticle, Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis; for this glorious song was sung at Bethlehem over the crib of the divine Babe; the tongues of the angels are not loosened yet; the Virgin has not yet brought forth her divine Treasure; it is not yet time to sing, it is not even true to say, 'Glory be to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men of good will.'
Again, at the end of Mass, the deacon does not dismiss the assembly of the faithful by the words: Ite missa est. He substitutes the ordinary greeting: Benedicamus Domino! as though the Church feared to interrupt the prayers of the people, which could scarce be too long during these days of expectation.
In the night Office, the holy Church also suspends, on those same days, the hymn of jubilation, Te Deum laudamus. It is in deep humility that she awaits the supreme blessing which is to come to her; and, in the interval, she presumes only to ask, and entreat, and hope. But let the glorious hour come, when in the midst of darkest night the Sun of justice will suddenly rise upon the world: then indeed she will resume her hymn of thanksgiving, and all over the face of the earth the silence of midnight will be broken by this shout of enthusiasm: 'We praise Thee, O God! we acknowledge Thee to be our Lord! Thou, O Christ, art the King of glory, the everlasting Son of the Father! Thou being to deliver man didst not disdain the Virgin's womb!'
On the ferial days, the rubrics of Advent prescribe that certain prayers should be said kneeling, at the end of each canonical Hour, and that the choir should also kneel during a considerable portion of the Mass. In this respect, the usages of Advent are precisely the same as those of Lent.
But there is one feature which distinguishes Advent most markedy from Lent: the word of gladness, the joyful Alleluia, is not interrupted during Advent, except once or twice during the ferial Office. It is sung in the Masses of the four Sundays, and vividly contrasts with the sombre colour of the vestments. On one of these Sundays, the third, the prohibitionof using the organ is removed, and we are gladdened by the grand notes, and rose-coloured vestments may be used instead of the purple. These vestiges of joy, thus blended with the holy mournfulness of the Church, tell us, in a most expressive way, that though she unites with the ancient people of God (thus paying the debt which the entire human race owes to the justice and mercy of God), she does not forget that the Emmanuel is already come to her, that He is in her, and that even before she has opened her lips to ask Him to save her, she has already been redeemed and pre-destined to an eternal union with Him. This is the reason why the Alleluia accompanies even her sighs, and why she seems to be at once joyous and sad, waiting for the coming of that holy night which will be brighter to her than the most sunny of days, and on which her joy will expel all her sorrow.