Advent, as a season, is lucky to get the time of day in the 21st C, let alone the four weeks it is entitled to. The secular world rushes headlong into Christmas as soon as November is under way and, for many people, Advent is synonymous only with chocolate Advent calendars and an increasingly frenetic sense of time running out, as “The Big Day” approaches. By the time “The Big Day” arrives, many, in their secret heart of hearts, find themselves feeling a bit short-changed; slightly disappointed that the “magic of Christmas” is more elusive to pin down than they hoped and slightly, or greatly, relieved that the whole thing is over for another year.
This is rather a pity. Advent is the Church’s great gift to the celebration of Christmas. It enhances, rather than diminishes, what is to come and helps to ensure that we are not too frazzled to enjoy it all. We bypass it, I think, at our peril. It invites us to do a number of things that are quite counter-intuitive in the busy weeks before Christmas. It invites us to stop constantly stressing about stuff and make time to be quiet and at peace. It invites us, not to write endless lists of things-to-be-done, but to spend a bit of time wondering, dreaming and thinking about where we find our true north. It invites us, not to curtail all of our practical preparations, but to realise that if something does not go entirely according to plan, it doesn’t matter – the essence of the celebration of Christmas won’t be affected by whether the sprouts were over-cooked or you forgot to get the turkey out of the freezer as early as you intended. It gives you permission to set your own agenda not an agenda imposed by commerce or the expectations of others.
Originally, Advent was strictly a penitential season – people gave things up, a bit like in Lent, and didn’t eat meat, or indulge in excessive consumption. They also took a long, hard look at their way of life, conscious that we are not here on this earth forever. Penitence is now a less popular element in the way many think nowadays – too many echoes of guilt and self-criticism for comfort. But, originally, it was intended to be a freeing, cleansing thing; a state of mind that encouraged and helped people to realise that the Gospel message was all about being given a second chance and not being written off by past actions, events or experiences – the very opposite of encouraging guilt-tripping and much more focussed on creating as bright and fulfilling a future as possible.
Whether or not you feel like giving anything up for Advent and regardless of whether you feel comfortable with the original, penitential echoes of the season, it’s good to make time for Advent and for ourselves in all the Christmas busyness.
As a small contribution intended to help with that, there will be a series of Advent posts here, based on the traditional Advent Antiphons that the Church uses as introductory sentences before the Magnificat at Evening Prayer, between the 17th and 23rd December. You can have a listen to how they are traditionally sung here. (Sapientia / Wisdom is the theme of the first antiphon.)
These sentences, originally formulated in Latin, emphasise some of the different characteristics and images associated with Jesus, particularly those referred to in Isaiah’s prophetic writing. They are vivid and picturesque and help us to look not just at what God has done for us in the past, but also what he will do for us in the future. Thinking about them can intensify our sense of expectation, as we prepare for Christmas and help us recapture the excitement of Christmas that we knew as children, without leaving us in a frazzled heap, tempted to pinch Santa’s sherry on Christmas Eve.
Fancy coming along for the ride? It won’t cost you a penny and might save you some, since generally, people are not nearly so tempted to make unnecessary, impulse purchases, if they are at peace with themselves and the world as when they feel themselves in a maelstrom of conflicting pressures. You might also reach Christmas, fitter and lighter in spirit, mind and body, than ever before.
There are eight antiphons in total and the intention is to spread out the themed posts across Advent, with a few days between each post. The first one will be on 3rd December and the last one on Christmas Eve. Each post will give the text of the relevant antiphon, with a little bit of background on its theme, and offer something to read, something to wonder about and something to do, if you want to take it further.
You can dip in and dip out, depending on what else is going on in life. My hope and prayer is that you might find something here that encourages you to make time for Advent and all it can bring you and that your Christmas, when it comes, may be all the more intensely meaningful and joyful.