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.