One of the themes for the First Sunday in Advent is to be ‘watchful.’ In the Epistle, St Paul urges us to ‘know the hour’ and in the Gospel Jesus tells us that ‘the kingdom of God is at hand.’ The reason for this watchfulness is aptly given in the prayer after communion: ‘that we may with worthy reverence approach the coming festival of our redemption.’
For the past 1000 years, the Catholic and Orthodox churches in Europe and North America have prepared for and approached the Feast of the Nativity with fasting and prayer. During these days, Friday abstinence is extended to the one-meal fast on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. And additional times for prayer – most especially the radiantly beautiful Rorate Mass – have been provided.
There is also another precious custom kept primarily in the home that helps us be watching and ‘know the hour.’ That custom is the Advent wreath.
The advent wreath consists of two things: candles and greens. The candles remind us that, as the days shorten and darkness increases, ‘the Light who enlightens all’ will soon be born. And the greens remind us that this Light who cannot be overwhelmed is also the Life of all.
The Advent wreath helps us keep track of time by the way the candles are used. Four candles (three purple and one rose) prepare to count down the Sundays before Christ Mass. Each week, another candle is lit increasing our anticipation until, in the last few days before the feast, all four colored candles are burning.
Of course, the candles are not lit merely to provide light. Like the candles we light in front of our icons and statues, they are symbols of faith while helping us center our prayers. So also with the Advent wreath. This outward act of counting down does us most good when it is coupled with the inward and spiritual action of reading Scripture, praying, and singing a hymn.
Here’s my suggestion, based on long-standing practice: In the evening, when the day has wound down, turn down or off all other lights, and light the appropriate number of Advent candles. As these candles shed their cheerful light with their warm glow, say the Our Father and Hail Mary and another fitting prayer. You may also wish to read a brief Scripture selection and sing an Advent hymn or a song in honor of the Holy Mother of God.
Dedicating yourself daily to this simple devotional practice will heighten your anticipation of Our Lord’s Nativity. It will also make you mindful of the time, and will assist you in being ‘watchful’ in your words and actions so that your ‘rough places’ may be made smoother.
This devotional may also bring to mind that Our Lord comes both to disperse the darkness that too often infects our souls, and to warm the coldness that we sometimes feel toward God and others.
But let me take this one step further: On Christ Mass Day, replace the colored candles with four white candles, and keep up the same practice during each of the Twelve Days until the Feast of the Epiphany. With this routine, you will enter the New Year with the daily habit of prayer, meditation, and song. Can there be a better way to chase way gloom from our homes, and to be ever mindful of Our Lord’s nearness?
Wishing you and yours a joyful preparation for the Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity, I remain your spiritual father in Christ,
Postscript: The ‘Prayers for Advent and Christmas’ that I’ve prepared are designed to make easier Scripture, prayer, and hymn selections.