How Well Do You Know Advent from Christmas?

Saint John the Baptist was sent to announce, "Prepare the way of the Lord" (Mk 1:3). In Advent, which begins Sunday, Nov. 29. we do exactly that: We wait and we hope for Jesus, giving testimony to the Light coming into the world.

But which coming do we prepare for?

People often think we're only getting ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but actually that's not all! In Advent, we prepare for all three comings of Christ: the Incarnation; the Second Coming of Christ; and Jesus' entry into our hearts through the Sacraments and prayer. So yes, in Advent, we prepare for the coming of Jesus. And a key element to preparing the way of the Lord is penance, which enables us to share in the Cross of Christ.

As Fr. John Hardon, SJ, used to say, "Love and suffering are inseparable." Many have forgotten that Advent is a penitential season, and used to be a full 40-day fast like Lent. (The Orthodox Church still observes that fast.) By performing fasting and penance in Advent, we prepare to celebrate Christmas with clean hearts and minds by offering reparation for our sins, strengthening our weakened wills, mortifying our disordered desires, and renewing our minds (see Rom 12:2).

We offer some helpful Advent practices to prepare your hearts and your families for Christmas in our pamphlet "Living the Spirit of Advent".

So when does the true Christmas season start? If you listen to the commercials and the media, Advent is the Christmas season. For them, Christmas begins the day after Thanksgiving, when the gift buying season begins, and ends after Christmas Day. Actually, the opposite is true. The Christmas season begins on the Vigil of Christmas — Christmas Eve — and ends in January, on the Solemnity of the Baptism of Our Lord, which is the Sunday after the Solemnity of the Epiphany (when we celebrate the manifestation of our Lord during the visit of the Three Magi).

That is the true Christmas season, when we ought to have Christmas decorations all around the house. Christmas to Epiphany is 12 days — traditionally called "Christmastide," or the 12 days of Christmas.

There is, however, one particular Advent decoration: the Advent wreath. Its shape is a circle, with no beginning and no end, to symbolize eternity. The wreath is made out of evergreen, so named because it always stays green, and thus symbolizes eternal life. We light candles on the wreath because Christ is the Light of the World. Those four candles symbolize hope, faith, joy, and peace. The purple candles represent penance, but the one rose candle (lit on Gaudete Sunday in the third week of Advent) represents joy. It's like this little oasis in the desert of a fasting and penitential season.

As the days grow darker, we light more candles, showing that the light of Christ is shining over the horizon, that once again, a people in darkness are seeing a great light (see Mt 4:16). We have hope; Christ is coming. When we light the rose candle, we're within two weeks of Christmas. So in this Advent season, let us pray to our great saints and with our Catholic brethren for hope, faith, joy, and peace for ourselves and our world.

Let us be prepared to worthily receive the gifts of God, especially the Incarnate Divine Mercy.  

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