Today begins the new liturgical year and our “little Lent” in preparation for the Solemnity of the Incarnation. Why do we have a year that is separate from the secular calendar year? Simply put, the liturgical year is meant to be the guiding principal of a Catholic’s temporal cycle and life:
94. The liturgical year is the temporal structure within which the Church celebrates the holy mysteries of Christ: “From the Incarnation and the Nativity to the Ascension, to Pentecost and to the wait in joyful hope for the Lord’s coming”(109). [Emphasis mine]
Within the liturgical cycle the Divine Liturgy occupies priority of place. Since the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life,” all our devotions are intended to flow to and from the liturgy. Our spirituality or liturgical life necessarily consists of those devotions that assist us to grow in holiness. And since we live in a temporal world that is meant to express eternity, our devotions are expressed within the appropriate season:
In the liturgical year, “the celebration of the Paschal Mystery […] is the most privileged moment in the daily, weekly and annual celebration of Christian worship”(110). Consequently, the priority of the Liturgical year over any other devotional form or practice must be regarded as a touch stone for the relationship between Liturgy and popular piety.
Even how we decorate and live out the various seasons is catechetical, not only to our children but also to our family and friends. Advent is no different. Don’t get me wrong, the “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” branding is great. However, I think we would make much more of an impact if we lived out our Catholic traditions with fervor and diligence in accordance with the appropriate seasons. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, everyone knew you were Catholic because you did not eat meat on Friday. And yes, it was abused at times but for the faithful who integrated the pastoral theology of the Church, the testimony was simple and profound.
So, what does the Church say about Advent? At first glance, I am sure you are saying, “Wait, they actually provide guidance of how we are to live out Advent?” Yep! We’ve been doing this for 2000 years and have collected a few good ideas.
The document for guidance is contained in the Directory for Popular Piety and the Liturgy (DPPL) which was revised and promulgated in 2001 by the Congregation on Divine Worship and the Sacraments (CDW). Additionally, for those who think it is just another document and lazy reading for a rainy day, it is issued by a Pontifical Congregation, therefore, is binding on all Catholics.
What does it say? Glad you asked. The DPPL provides a rich and beautiful set of options (not all inclusive but those that most generously express the richness of our faith in accordance with the season) to properly prepare us for and during this season. Advent of courses is a time of expectation and waiting,
- waiting-memory of the first, humble coming of the Lord in our mortal flesh; waiting-supplication for his final, glorious coming as Lord of History and universal Judge;
- conversion, to which the Liturgy at this time often refers quoting the prophets, especially John the Baptist, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3,2);
- joyful hope that the salvation already accomplished by Christ (cf. Rm 8, 24-25) and the reality of grace in the world, will mature and reach their fulness, thereby granting us what is promised by faith, and “we shall become like him for we shall see him as he really is” (John 3,2).
The Church recommends a number of devotions to assist us on this journey called Advent. This journey is meant to help us “relive” the four stages of revelation prior to the Nativity. To do so, we are encouraged to make use of the Advent Wreath by:
Placing four candles on green fronds has become a symbol of Advent in many Christian home, especially in the Germanic countries and in North America.
The Advent wreath, with the progressive lighting of its four candles, Sunday after Sunday, until the Solemnity of Christmas, is a recollection of the various stages of salvation history prior to Christ’s coming and a symbol of the prophetic light gradually illuminating the long night prior to the rising of the Sun of justice (cf. Ml 3,20; Lk 1,78).
No one would argue that Advent is unmistakably Marian. Our Eastern brethren take our Lady’s role in the plan of salvation so seriously that it purposefully highlights her role through its calendar and liturgies:
In the calendars of the Oriental Churches, the period of preparation for the celebration of the manifestation (Advent) of divine salvation (Theophany) in the mysteries of Christmas-Epiphany of the Only Son of God, is markedly Marian in character. Attention is concentrated on preparation for the Lord’s coming in the Deipara. For the Orientals, all Marian mysteries are Christological mysteries since they refer to the mystery of our salvation in Christ. In the Coptic rite, the Lauds of the Virgin Mary are sung in the Theotokia. Among the Syrians, Advent is referred to as the Subbara or Annunciation, so as to highlight its Marian character. The Byzantine Rite prepares for Christmas with a whole series of Marian feasts and rituals.
Of special note in the Latin Rite is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The themes associated with the Immaculate Conception are central to Advent. Here in the America’s, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe holds a special place in our tradition because of its connection to the Immaculate Conception and evangelistic outreach to Central and South Americans.
Among the recommended devotions is the display of a manger or crib – and by extension the crèche,
As is well known, in addition to the representations of the crib found in churches since antiquity, the custom of building cribs in the home was widely promoted from the thirteenth century, influenced undoubtedly by St. Francis of Assisi’s crib in Greccio. Their preparation, in which children play a significant role, is an occasion for the members of the family to come into contact with the mystery of Christmas, as they gather for a moment of prayer or to read the biblical accounts of the Lord’s birth.
There are a number of traditions that may assist us prepare during Advent and Christmastide. To the growing Hispanic American and our Italian population processions are a traditional expressions for devotions.
In many regions, various kinds of processions are held in Advent, publicly to announce the imminent birth of the Saviour (the “day star” in some Italian processions), or to represent the journey to Bethlehem of Joseph and Mary and their search for a place in which Jesus would be born (the posadas in the Hispanic and Latin American tradition).
Since Pentecost, the very first novena, popular devotion and piety has developed a number of novenas in connection to various feasts. The Christmas novena is an exciting way to blend a child’s Christmas expectations with prayer and the posture of the Advent season:
The Christmas novena began as a means of communicating the riches of the Liturgy to the faithful who were unable easily to grasp it. It has played a very effective role and can continue to play such a role. At the same time, in current conditions where the faithful have easier access to the Liturgy, it would seem desirable that vespers from the 17-23 of December should be more solemn by adopting the use of the “major antiphons”, and by inviting the faithful to participate at the celebration. Such a celebration, held either before of after which the popular devotions to which the faithful are particularly attached, would be an ideal “Christmas novena”, in full conformity with the Liturgy and mindful of the needs of the faithful. Some elements, such as the homily, the use of incense, and the intercessions, could also be expanded within the celebration of Vespers.
Most Catholics would connect this novena with the “O Anthipons” made popular through the song O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Just to add a note of snark, why is it that parishes use this song as the premier Advent song when it is meant to be used between the dates of December 17 – 24 ? Just a question.
Hopefully, this is a beginning to understand our tradition of celebrating Advent. Popular piety has a way of conserving the themes and practices that the Church desires us to keep during the Advent without losing ourselves in the commercialization:
Popular piety, because of its intuitive understanding of the Christian mystery, can contribute effectively to the conservation of many of the values of Advent, which are not infrequently threatened by the commercialization of Christmas and consumer superficiality.
If we have learned nothing over the past 200 years, popular piety has taught us that that Advent is meant to be a time of sober and joyous simplicity. The sobriety is usually overlooked because we forget that we not only anticipating the first coming of our Lord but also His Second Coming. This understanding will cause us to examine our conscience, repent of our sins and make room for our Lord to be born in our hearts.
As we prepare for Christmas, let’s first live out our Advent. Christmas will be here sooner than we want. May this little Lent be a time of profound spiritual renewal. Take a look at your devotions and align them with the liturgy and watch your spiritual life deepen beyond your wildest dreams.
 Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments (CDW), Directory On Popular Piety And The Liturgy (DPPL), (2001) 94.
 Sacrosanctum Concilium, 102.
 Lumen Gentium, 11. cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1324.
 PAUL VI, Apostolic Letter Mysterii paschalis, in AAS 61 (1969) 222.
 CDW, DPPL, (2001) 94.
 CDW, DPPL, (2001) 96.
 CDW, DPPL, (2001) 98.
 CDW, DPPL, (2001) 101.
 CDW, DPPL, (2001) 104.
 CDW, DPPL, (2001) 9.
 CDW, DPPL, (2001) 103.
 CDW, DPPL, (2001) 105.