Why should you spiritually prepare for Christmas?

The holiday cheer, the Christmas music, the warm drinks and the shopping deals — these are just a few of the things we love most as we get close to Christmas. While good and fun, these things, in all the noise and busyness, might lead us to overlook the days leading up to the celebration of Christ’s birth as an important time of preparation — otherwise known as Advent.

So what is Advent and why does the Church set aside time for it?

Comprised of four weeks leading up to Christmas Day and set aside by the Church as a time to prepare our hearts to receive Jesus in a deeper way, the season of Advent is a crucial time to reflect on our relationship with God and to truly be awake to his presence, according to Msgr. Bernard Schmitz, pastor of St. Joseph parish in Denver.

“Anytime you have a major liturgical celebration such as Christmas or Easter, or even before a solemnity of some kind, there’s always a vigil, there’s always some kind of preparation,” Msgr. Schmitz said. “You come before the Lord with the acknowledgement and the awareness that we’re really unworthy to be present there, so it’s a desire to really claim our poverty of spirit and be open to the gifts the Lord has for us. So Advent is exactly that.”

Advent is the preparation for two comings: The second coming of Christ and the Incarnation, when Christ became flesh. And the preparation is a grace offered to us to enter more deeply into those mysteries.

“God’s grace is always available, but we have our own free will. We have the will to ignore it or receive it,” Msgr. Schmitz said. “So if in Christmas what we focus on is the Incarnation and God’s presence with us, I have to prepare my heart for that.

“Because if all the Advent season has been primarily [focused] on me, and on what I’m going to get or do for somebody else, or being able to brag about getting my Christmas cards sent, how am I going to be awake to the Lord?” he added. “It’s not magical. In order to be able to enter into the mystery of Christmas, I have to get myself out of the way.”

Just another Lent?

What’s the difference between Advent and Lent? Is Advent just another, shorter season of penance like Lent?

According to Canon Law, it’s not penitential (“The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent,” Can. 1250), but it is still a time to prepare our hearts for Christ and is an opportunity for reconversion.

Anytime you have a major liturgical celebration such as Christmas or Easter … there’s always some kind of preparation. You come before the Lord with the acknowledgement and the awareness that we’re really unworthy to be present there, so it’s a desire to really claim our poverty of spirit and be open to the gifts the Lord has for us. So Advent is exactly that.”

“Advent, [although somewhat penitential], its focus is more in terms of opening my eyes to see the presence of the Lord, and Lent is a more serious penitential intent on imitating Christ’s 40 days in the desert to really cleanse myself,” Msgr. Schmitz said. “If I was going to make a comparison, it would be between the Lord and his 40 days in the desert as preparation for ministry. In Advent, my comparison would be the Blessed Mother, her preparing to give life. If we’re to give birth to the Word of God, we have to prepare to do that.”

While the season of Lent is penitential and Advent more characterized by hopeful longing and joyful expectation, both are a time of prayerfulness, almsgiving and sacrifices.

Another similarity is that both seasons use the color purple in the priests’ vestments as a symbol of penance, sacrifice and preparation, as well as a second color: Rose (or pink), which is worn on the third Sunday of Advent, known as “Gaudete” Sunday, symbolizing joy.

Practical preparation

There are plenty of ways we can practically prepare for Christmas during the Advent season, according to Msgr. Schmitz. One of the most popular ways is the Advent wreath, which symbolizes Christ as a light in the darkness and has four candles, three purple and one pink for each of the four weeks of Advent.

More than just a tradition, an Advent wreath is a great way to prepare for the coming Christmas season. It has one candle for each of the four weeks of Advent, and symbolizes Christ as a light in the darkness. (Stock photo)

“I remember as a child we had an Advent wreath and every night before dinner, we would pray the prayers and light it and we always enjoyed as kids to see which one of us was going to get to light it,” he laughed.

“Certainly attending Mass is helpful, confession during Advent, and most parishes have Advent penance services,” Msgr. Schmitz continued.

He also recommended a Christmas novena, fasting from meat on Fridays, saying a rosary as a family, or fasting from Christmas music for a couple weeks until the day the Christmas novena starts, or delaying celebrating until Christmas Eve.

“Probably the most important thing is [asking], who do I need to forgive, or who do I need to ask forgiveness from before we get to Christmas?” he said. “Because the greatest gift we give each other is our presence. So who have I not been present to? Who do I need to find a way to reach out to to heal?”

COMING UP: Embrace the waiting this Advent

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Brianna Heldt is a Catholic writer, speaker and podcaster. Her work has appeared in various print and online publications.

Five years ago, one of my daughters desperately needed open heart surgery. Newly adopted and four-years-old, her heart defects were the result of having been born with Down syndrome. The doctors all said that she should have had this surgery when she was much younger, but that was simply not an option in the country of her birth.

So there we sat in the hospital on a chilly December morning, my husband and me, praying and waiting. Waiting for an update from the nurse on how things were going, waiting to hear that my daughter had been placed on the bypass machine, and waiting for the surgeon to finally emerge with news that, miracle of all miracles, the surgery had been successful. After so very much waiting, my daughter’s heart was repaired.

As a mother to nine children, my waiting is of course not limited to dramatic situations in dimly-lit hospital rooms. I wait for sleepy kids to finish breakfast so we can rush off to school, I wait for them to put their pajamas on (and drink their hundredth glass of water) before I tuck them into bed at night, and I selfishly wait for them to reach milestones that promise to make my own life a little bit easier—although it turns out that each new stage brings its own unique challenges. Who knew?

I also spend a fair amount of time waiting at soccer games and swim meets, and in the car outside of our church each week until my eldest finally emerges, with her friends of course, from youth group.

But for as much as I do it, I really don’t like to wait. It feels stressful, and inefficient. Waiting necessitates not only a quieting of the heart and mind, but also the acknowledgment that there are (gasp!) things outside of my control.

And then there is the not knowing. How will things turn out, what will this look like, will there be suffering mixed with the joy? I sit and worry over challenges my children face (not least of which is the reality of growing up in an increasingly coarse and confused culture), or I fret about friends and family who are sick or struggling. I inadvertently take my eyes off of Jesus, and my heart fills with anxious thoughts about a future I cannot see.

More than ever, then, I desperately need Advent. It is a liturgical season entirely predicated upon this notion of expectation, and waiting, for Jesus. And not only that, but Advent calls us to penance, reflection, and silence, things that are hard to come by in our modern time. We must place our trust in the hope of what is to come, while we wait.

As difficult as it all is, this is actually one of the biggest blessings of Advent—being still and watching God’s plans unfold, with the expectation that no matter what, it will be good. Not necessarily easy, happy, or what I would choose, but certainly part of my journey toward holiness.

If I can continue to trust and to love, and to remember that I am (in the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta) merely a pencil in God’s hand, I open myself up to the astounding and perfect work of the Lord. When I accept my vocation and all of the accompanying joys and sorrows, I become like Mary when she was visited by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation—not just giving my fiat or yes to the one specific thing being asked of me, but to whatever may lie ahead as a result. Unknowns and all. Without condition.

It is, however, hard to enter into Advent and tune out the voices of the world, especially during this frenzied time of year. I am prone to becoming distracted, overwhelmed by what the perfectionistic culture expects from super-moms (think elaborately crafted gingerbread houses, perfectly baked cookies, and getting all of your Christmas shopping done early). So it is all the more necessary to carve out time to simply love and to simply be, both individually and as a family.

This can be time spent at home reading good books or playing a game, saying (even just a decade) of a family rosary, or singing an Advent hymn. Your plans don’t have to be perfect or even particularly extensive to make for a good and holy Advent—remember that God asks for our hearts and for our best, and he knows we have seasons of life that are harder than others.

And unlike the world’s shallow, saccharine-sweet version of the holidays, Advent makes space for loneliness and suffering. Also, for tired moms. Advent gives us hope, as we prepare our hearts for the Savior who came into the world as a small and defenseless baby. Advent gives us courage to continue to give our yes, in the way of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our waiting, even in a hospital room, is suddenly redeemed by the love and mercy of Jesus in Advent.