Today marks the first day of the Christian Advent season. Advent means "coming" and is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ. Three "comings" are celebrated at Advent; first the birth of Christ, second the coming of Christ into our lives through the communion or sacrament (the bread and wine representing his body and blood), and third the final coming of Christ at his second coming.
Advent season begins four Sundays before Christmas. During these four weeks, families attend special Masses or church services, light the four (or sometimes five) candles in their advent calendar, and study and prepare for the "comings" of Christ.
Advent is a wonderful time to reflect on our own acceptance of the Savior. It is a time when we can each ask if we have truly accepted and allowed the Savior to "come" into our life. One of my favorite things to do is to study one chapter each week from the four chapters of the Nativity (Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2). As I study these chapters, I ask how I would have accepted Jesus at his birth; would I be like the wise men bringing gifts, or like Mary who humbly accepted her difficult yet important role, or Zacharias who at first doubted the angel, or even like Herod who sought to destroy the Christ child.
Below are just a few of the many Advent traditions that can be incorporated during the four weeks prior to Christmas to help prepare for the "coming" of Christ:
Lighting Candles: One of the main traditions of Advent is the lighting of the Advent wreath. The wreath includes four (or sometimes five) candles at the center of a wreath. One candle is lit on the first Sunday, two the second, three the third, and all four on the last Sunday. If the wreath has five candles, the last candle is lit on Christmas Eve or day. The colors of the candles vary between cultures and sects, but most often will have three purple, one pink, and one white (the white being the fifth candle). Because you use the same candles each night, the candles create a nice stepped effect as you progress through the four weeks. These candles represent many things, but my favorite is the symbol of light, for truly light came forth because of the birth of Christ (the light increasing until the actual night of Christmas). The color purple also represents royalty, symbolizing the "coming" of Jesus in glory as King of kings, and Lord of lords.
Advent Calendar: Many families will celebrate Advent by purchasing an Advent calendar. The calendars have 24 pockets or doors that hide a different object or piece of candy that is revealed each night. Many calendars will include a person or animal that can be added to a Christmas nativity, with the Christ child being added to the nativity on Christmas Eve.
Christmas Nativity: Another tradition is to place the nativity set out little by little throughout the month, placing a new piece (such as a shepherd, wise man or lamb) out each week as the month progresses. Some families will even place the wise men in a different room and move them closer to the manger until they arrive on Christmas Eve. Others will let children place a single piece of straw on the empty manger for each good act they perform each day. In this way, they are helping to prepare a more comfortable bed for baby Jesus.
However you may chose to celebrate Advent, my hope is that this season may be a season of rejoicing. "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6).