Category Archives: Advent

The Waiting Game

In his most celebrated and enduring work, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens tells the story of a miserable old miser named Ebenezer Scrooge.  The protagonist is visited by three ghosts, each set on infusing into his heart the “Christmas spirit.”  As frightful as the experience might be, many of us would wholeheartedly welcome the arrival of a specter if it meant being given the Christmas spirit. In hopes of being caught up in the spirit, we try shopping for the perfect gift.  We may turn to Christmas music, but we can only listen to Feliz Navidad so many times (once) before our hearts grow cold.  We might blame the “culture” for the secularization of Christmas, but no matter what we do, the Christmas spirit remains elusive. What if, the problem was something else?  What if we struggle to get into the Christmas spirit because we never “get into” the spirit of Advent?

As the Latin derivation of the name suggests (Adventus for Coming), Advent is a period of preparation for the celebration of the Feast of the Incarnation on Christmas. Although it has been observed to varying degrees and varying lengths of time throughout Church history, it has always been viewed as a “little” Lent because it is a period of spiritual preparation through the disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It was “little” both because the duration of time is shorter (4 weeks vs 40 days) and because the Church does not command the same rigor as Lent. Its “littleness” has always been the reason why it is my favorite liturgical season and why it offers an excellent time for those of us who might grow weary and lose intensity during Lent or even suffer from a little spiritual ADD.

What Are You Waiting For?

Advent is a season of waiting.  Throughout history, God’s people have always waited for Him to fully reveal Himself. The Incarnation may have happened in a specific time and place, but it touches every time and place.  When God pitched His tent among us, time and eternity met—now each moment touches God’s eternal Now.  The season of Advent may end at Christmas—a day that marks the birth of Christ—but Christmas properly understood is meant to mark the three comings of Christ. First, there is His coming in the flesh in the cave in Bethlehem. Second, there is His coming in grace and the Eucharist to us in the here and now. Finally, it is preparation for His second coming when He will judge mankind. Christmas, like all the Christian mysteries, has a threefold meaning in the past, present and future. You cannot separate any of the three elements from the other two without doing harm to the meaning of Christmas. “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

This threefold meaning of Christmas is what ultimately helps us to “keep Christ in Christmas” by protecting it from simply being a day we remember some past event.  We see it not only as an event in the past that put the world on a different trajectory, but an event that touches each of us individually today and ultimately determines our individual future.  The Christmas spirit is a living spirit.  But we must prepare for it by following the steady path laid out in Sacred Scripture.  The Church borrows the words of the prophets in the Advent liturgies not so much to show they were right, but to make their fervent expressions of longing our own. God’s word is living and active and never returns to Him empty (c.f. Heb 4:12, Is 55:11). We must wrap our hearts around His words through the prophets and make them our own expressions. Advent should be a time in which Scripture comes alive for us, especially by dedicating more time to prayer and study.

Are You Awake?

It is not just the words of prophets that form our Advent, but even the cosmos bids us to “stay awake” as the night grows longer.  It is not until the “Light of the World” enters on December 25th that the days will begin to get longer again.  The Christmas spirit only comes when we have allowed the spirit of vigilance to animate our Advent.  Advent allows us to give expression to that deep yearning for God that we all experience. That desire is so deep within us and such a natural part of our daily existence that we often become drowsy.  Advent offers us both the opportunity, and specific graces, to become vigilant.  In fact we will likely find that we are more vigilant throughout the rest of the year because we have paid our dues in Advent.

Fasting while we await the arrival of the Bridegroom is also a key aspect of Advent. Assuming that His disciples would fast (Mt 6:16), He won many graces for them when He Himself fasted in the desert.  Fasting not only helps us to gain control over our passions, but when done properly actually makes our senses more alert.  This is why fasting from food is such a powerful spiritual practice.  Because food is necessary to life, the hunger we experience in going without, is felt at the core of our being. We give up what is necessary because we want the One Thing that is most necessary.

Advent and the Eucharist

Advent can also be a time in which we double-down on our devotion to the Eucharist.  The Eucharist ensures that Christmas Day is not merely symbolic. We truly receive what we have been preparing for, even if God shields our eyes under the appearance of bread and wine.  The entire purpose of all the season is to receive Christ in His fullness and permanently.  The Eucharist is the Sacrament that truly brings this about.  It is not only Christmas Day but the entire season of Advent that is protected from becoming a symbolic gesture by the Eucharist. Spending more time “keeping watch with Our Lord” for an hour of Adoration ought to be a key practice of Advent. Likewise, we should increase our frequency of Daily Mass attendance, asking for the grace to receive Our Lord more perfectly each time. The Eucharist has a gravitational force about it in that the more you receive Our Lord, the more you desire to receive Him again. There is no better way to make real the goal of Advent than by allowing Our Lord to bestow this gift upon us.

Running Through the Finish Line of Advent

Within Church tradition, Advent has been viewed as a “little” Lent.  Lent, because it involved a prolonged period of preparation marked by the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  “Little,” because it was a shorter time period (4 weeks vs 40 days) and because it lacked some of the rigor normally associated with Lent.  For many of us, despite the best of initial intentions, Advent has had any rigor at all.  The commercial trappings of Christmas can ensnare all of us to some degree, something we do not necessarily have to combat at Easter.  We may easily be tempted to give up and try again next year.  But there is still a week left in the season and the Church has the perfect prescription within her traditions to recoup some of the spiritual fruit that may have fallen off your Advent tree. It may be that Advent has been very good so far and you are looking for a way to stretch to gather the fruit from the top.  Either way, we can finish Advent by turning to the Church’s tradition of “little Advent.”

In the spirit of always acting with the end in mind, a brief reminder about the purpose of Advent.  All too often Advent and even Christmas can feel like a game of make believe.  We know that God has already come in the Incarnation.  We know that He is here in the Eucharist.  Sure we are awaiting His Second Coming in glory, but that is something that we are always waiting for.  Why do we need a special season of waiting?

It is precisely that reason that the Church gives us Advent leading up to the theophany of Christmas.  We may always be, as the embolism of the Mass says, waiting “in joyful hope for the coming of Our Savior.”  But Advent offers us a special time to focus solely on this waiting so as to stir up love in us and to awaken our otherwise dormant hope.  God’s promises really do come to fruition, not just “spiritually” but as history.  Not just once upon a time, but “in the first enrollment (of the census ordered by Caesar Augustus) when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”  God made good on His promise to be Emmanuel, God with us and He will continue until He has ransomed all of captive Israel.

This waiting is especially acute in Advent and ought to be our primary focus.  We do the things that waiting people do—pray, fast and give alms.


Beginning on December 17th, the Church has traditional marked seven days with a series of special antiphons known as the O Antiphons.  These antiphons frame the Magnificat in each evening’s Liturgy of the Hours.  Not only are these antiphons tied to the official prayer of the Church, but are also well known to most of us as they comprise the verses of O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

Within the Liturgy of the Hours, antiphons are short verses that are sung (or recited) prior to and after the Psalm or Canticle that provide an interpretive key to the mystical meaning of the passage or the feast day.  This is what makes the O Antiphons perfect material to recharge or redeem Advent for us—they are short reflections that capture the meaning of the season.  The O Antiphons allow us to make present the expectation of Israel and ignite within us any aspect of hope that has lain dormant in our hearts.  And because they are appended onto the Magnificat, Mary’s great prayer of expectation and thanksgiving, they unite us with her as well.

Each of the Great Antiphons as some have called them, invokes the name of the Messiah under his various Old Testament titles and closes with a proper petition.  The medieval church masters say there are seven as a reminder of the miseries of our fallen condition; each of which the Messiah came to rescue us from.  On the first day we recall how it is the Wisdom from on high that can free us from ignorance.  On the second day, we beg for the coming Redeemer who will save us from eternal punishment.  On the third day, longing for our heavenly homeland, we invoke the promised Root of Jesse to hurry to us.  Imprisoned in sin and death, on the fourth day, we plead for the Key of David to unlock our chains and guard us.  Trapped in darkness, we beg for the Dayspring to enlighten our way on the fifth day.  Because we are enslaved under the terrible reign of the devil, we invoke the King of Nations on the sixth day.  Finally, separated from God, we invoke Emmanuel, God with us.  In short, each of the seven days we should meditate upon our fallen condition and God’s remedy as outlined by that day’s antiphon.


At this stage of Advent, our longings ought to be felt, not just spiritually, but also bodily.  This is why the last week is a time to fast.  In teaching His disciples, Our Lord associates fasting with waiting for the Bridegroom (Mt 6:16).  It is a spiritual discipline that has fallen into disuse, but this last week of Advent offers a great time to get back into the practice.  Fasting allows us to truly experience longing for something we simply cannot live without.  By going without that which is necessary, namely food, we express our desire for the One Thing that is most necessary.  One would be hard pressed to come up with a better way to express the true meaning of the banquet most of us will partake of on Christmas Day than to have first fasted.  Feasts are only meaningful when we have had the experience of fasting.

Pope Benedict XVI often said we are living in the “already, but not yet.”  What he meant is that Christ has come and is with us really and truly, but we have not yet seen His glory.  It is in this spirit that fasting should always be accompanied by Daily Mass and reception of the Eucharist.  By having our actual hunger temporarily satisfied by the Bread of Life, we will again experience in our bodies the truth of what happens in our souls.


In a season marked by a spirit of  giving, it seems that almsgiving plays a large part already.  But we often miss the real point of almsgiving which is to give until it hurts.  We do this not because we are nice, but because we love God and want to give in the way that He gives—until it hurts.  Almsgiving should always flow from a supernatural motive that is based on a love of God and a desire for Him to spread His love through us.

There is also the tendency to give only from our surplus, especially for those of us who have families to support.  It seems wrong to take from what the family needs in order to help another family.  This was my own thinking for many years until I came across a quote from Pope Francis in which he said “we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to enrich others by our poverty.”  What I took the Holy Father to be saying is that, and this is especially true for parents, we should look to see what we can sacrifice personally.  Then there is no conflict with our obligations to our children and spouses.  As a father I may not be willing to have one of my children forgo a thick winter coat, but as a man I might be willing to forgo one myself so that someone else can be warm.  By personally going without something of importance, I can enrich others.  These “others” include not just the direct beneficiary of your charity but your children as well who catch the spirit of sacrifice so inimical to our Christian spirit.

There is another aspect of our almsgiving that should be a focus during Advent which can be a time of great loneliness for many people.  The greatest poverty is often a lack of being loved.  Too often we are tempted to take a “I gave at the office” type mentality that removes us from actual contact with the poor.  Giving money is a good thing, but the problem with it is that, as Pope Benedict XVI said, we have a tendency to give too little of ourselves.  What the other person needs most is the knowledge that they are loved, a knowledge that is only acquired by our face to face contact with them.  Our almsgiving should not just be focused on meeting material needs, but should always leave the person spiritually enriched as well.  Christians are not social workers, but manifestations of Christ’s self-giving love in the world.

Entering the home stretch of our Advent journeys, there is still plenty of time to seize the graces God had planned from the beginning of time to give to us.  By returning to our Catholic roots—through Prayer, especially the great O Antiphons, fasting and almsgiving—we can with great joy welcome Christ the newborn babe.

Awaiting the Prince of Peace

Each day during Advent, the readings focus on the coming of the Messiah, a coming that promised to usher in among other things, peace.  It is a peace that is anticipated by the prophets (c.f. Is 11:8), proclaimed by the angels who announce His birth (Lk 2:14), part of His endowment to the Apostles at the Last Supper (Jn 14:27) and the first gift given the Apostles celebrating His Resurrection (Jn 20:19).  It is also a peace that, despite being part of our Christian inheritance, remains elusive for many of us.  As we prepare to welcome the Prince of Peace, it is an opportune time to reflect on peace as the characteristic mark of Christians.

Definition of Peace

St. Augustine offers us the best definition of peace as “the tranquility of order.” It is an effect of having order in one’s life.  As an effect, it is end in itself. While we all desire peace, no one desires it as a means to something else.  It is simply part and parcel to a happy life.

Although we might struggle to come up with a definition as succinct as St. Augustine, we all intuitively know that peace has something to do with order.  One of the main ways that people cope with anxiety is by seeking to manufacture order.  For example, many people will clean when they are anxious in an attempt to create order in their environment.  The disorder that is actually causing the anxiety will not actually go away, but they will find some semblance of peace in creating order where there was previously disorder, even if it is short-lived like most coping mechanisms.

Where Peace is Found

This definition of peace also helps us to more deeply understand a famous quote from Thomas Merton in which he says that, “we arenot at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.”  Any attempt at socially engineering peace has the problem backwards, literally outside in.  Peace cannot come from the outside but must come from within because the well-ordered society only comes about through the work of well-ordered men.  It only comes about through the work of well-ordered Christian men, because only Christians have the capacity for true peace.


The narratives of the Old Testament orbit around man’s futile attempts to create peace for himself.  It becomes obvious that it was a practical impossibility and that only a miraculous intervention by God could bring peace.  As fallen creatures we find that there is a war within our members (Romans 7:23).  In other words, we lack the internal order that creates tranquility.  We find that the “flesh lusts against the spirit” (Gal 5:17)—our passions and our wills are constantly battling for control.

The path to order is paved by the moral virtues, those habitual dispositions that enable us to bridle our passions and ride them to the Good with intensity.  But even that road is marked by sinkholes until we put on Christ and take our rightful share in His virtues.  The Prince of Peace exercised all the virtues so that we might finally be empowered to be delivered from this handicap once and for all.  In other words, by making peace with God, the Word Made Flesh also empowers us to make peace within ourselves.

First Obstacle: Sin

No amount of coping mechanisms can help us avoid the truth that we do not have peace because we have sin in our lives.  When I say this, it is not so much the actual sins that cause the disorder, but the reason we commit them.  In other words, the disorder is caused by our predominant fault, with our actual sins just being manifestations of this fault.  It is not enough to recognize that I get irrationally angry at my family, but I must get to the root cause of my anger.  Perhaps I do it because I crave comfort and do not want to be disturbed.  Or, perhaps I do it because I am vain and do not want to suffer the embarrassment of being opposed.  Or, perhaps in my pride I am attempting to control other people’s actions.  It is the same sin, blowing up at my family, but its root cause can be vastly different—pride, vanity or sensuality.  I may learn to control my anger, but until I attack the predominant fault of pride, vanity or sensuality, the disorder will remain.  This is why we always use the principle of overcoming evil with good—we are habitual creatures.  You can only overcome one habit (or vice) by replacing it with a new habit (virtue).

The Second Obstacle: Lack of Trust

Sin is not the only obstacle to peace.  In order to see this, we must avoid the pitfall of assuming that the solution to a lack of peace is to be more “spiritual” by looking upon the world with indifference.  Peace may not come from the outside, but the things that threaten our peace do.  This is why peace is only found in those who have a radical trust in God.  Life is full of difficulties and contradictions—in other words disorder.  That is a reality that cannot be merely overlooked.  But what is also real is that God uses those difficulties and contradictions to bring about what is good for us. God’s Providence is not merely universal, but personal.

Advent and peace go hand in hand.  Advent is a time to “stay awake” so that we can hurry up and wait.  It is a time to cultivate patience as we reflect on those things that threaten our peace and begin to see that God is at work in them.  This is not something we will see all at once, but only grow in this conviction with repeated experience.  He brought order out of chaos in creation and will do so in our re-creation in Christ.  Peace is distinctly Christian because it is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.  Like all fruit, not only does it have a certain sweetness to it, but it also is a sign of a mature tree.  May this Advent be a time of maturity so that we may welcome the Prince of Peace into our hearts in a most profound way.