‘Tis the season for Christmas advertisements, entertainment offerings, decorations, parties and such. So as December begins, you may wonder where the brightly lit trees, Nativity scene and Christmas carols are at your local parish.
Yet Advent stresses the importance of awaiting the holiday, not celebrating it prematurely. So, while many other entities are in the passing lane as they race toward Dec. 25, the Catholic Church closely observes the speed limit.
“When the church gets to (Christmas), everybody else is done with it,” remarked Father Robert Kennedy, pastor of Rochester’s Blessed Sacrament Parish.
“It’s so countercultural for us, as Christians, to be in the moment,” said Ginny Miller, associate director of the diocesan Office of Liturgy. “We live in an age of instant gratification. To be waiting for something is so foreign to us. Parishes have to help everyone put that aside.”
One way to meet this Advent objective is through a church’s visual aspects. According to the Sourcebook for Sundays and Seasons, issued by Liturgical Training Publications, the church should contain few adornments: “There is no hint of Christmas festivities. No lights, no poinsettias, no Christmas trees, no trumpeting angels.” The sourcebook added that Advent colors inside and outside the church should be violet with a bit of rose, depicting the sky colors as the December sun is about to rise.
The most familiar church symbol would be the Advent wreath which, with its circular shape and evergreen foliage, pays tribute to God’s eternal presence and love. Many parishes observe the tradition of having a family light a wreath candle on each of Advent’s four Sundays. Meanwhile, Father Kennedy said that Blessed Sacrament parishioners have traditionally made Advent wreaths for their homes.
Another key church component is Advent music. Many songs reflect the season in their titles, such as “O Come O Come Emmanuel;” “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus;” and “Soon and Very Soon.” Miller noted that “My Soul In Stillness Waits” is an ideal Communion song for Advent, and “Christ Be Our Light” is an opening song she has planned to use at Sacred Heart Cathedral during the season (Miller also is the music coordinator for the Cathedral Community parish.)
Restraint is routinely practiced in Advent music. Article 313 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal calls for the organ and other instruments to be used “with a moderation that is consistent with the season’s character and does not anticipate the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord.” Examples of this would be a cappella singing or solo instrumentation, such as a flute during the call to worship. Masses also might include extra periods of silence before readings and/or after Communion.
As is the case with Christmas decorations, carol-singing should not begin in churches until the first Christmas liturgy. This particular year calls for a quick transition, since the final Sunday of Advent falls on Christmas Eve: the first Christmas Mass will begin in many places just a few hours after the last weekend liturgy. For practical purposes, Father Kennedy suggested laying a Nativity crib out ahead of time but not inserting the figurines until the last moment, and setting up trees in advance but leaving the lights turned off.
A church’s look and sound — as well as its readings and homilies — are meant to complement Advent priorities stated in the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar, No. 39: “Advent has a twofold character: as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ’s first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ’s second coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation.”
Miller added that Advent offers solace for people who are wearied by life circumstances and world problems such as war.
“Advent is all about longing, hoping and anticipation of the fulfillment of promise,” she said.
Once Christmas liturgies arrive, all the bells and whistles can finally spill out, with celebrations continuing through the following several days as well.
“Of course, the world has moved on to Valentine’s Day by then,” Miller quipped.