The Mystery of Advent
Fr. Scott A. Haynes
As we begin the new Church year, we contemplate the mystery of Advent – the three mysterious comings of Christ. The first coming was in the flesh. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The second advent is in the soul. For in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, we “have been baptized into Christ Jesus,” as our souls receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But the third coming of Christ will be on the Last Day at the Final Judgment. Father Gabriel of Saint Mary Magdale expressed it this way:
“He came with love to Bethlehem; He comes with grace into our souls; He will come with justice at the end of the world.”
The observance of season of Advent in the Church originally lasted for forty days. In the Ambrosian Liturgy and in the Liturgical Rites of the Eastern Churches, forty days of Advent are still observed. The Roman liturgy later shortened the seasons of Advent to four weeks in order to recall that the advent of our Redeemer took place after 4,000 years, according to the chronology of the Hebrews. The date when the season was first observed is uncertain. Bishop Perpetuus of Tours (461–490) established a fast before Christmas that began on November 11 (St. Martin’s Day), and the Council of Tours (567) mentioned an Advent season.
Except on the feasts of the saints, the priest wears violet vestments during Advent. During this season, the deacon, historically, did not wear the dalmatic, nor the sub-deacon the tunic. And formerly it was even the custom, in some places, to wear black vestments during Advent. This mourning of the Church shows how fully she unites herself with those true Israelites of old. For they clothed themselves in sack-cloth and ashes, waiting for the Messiah. They bewailed Sion that she had not her beauty, and Juda, that the scepter had been taken from him.
The Advent season expresses the desolation of the Church as bride who yearns after Christ her Beloved. The Church also, during Advent, except on the feasts of saints, suppresses the angelic canticle, Gloria in excelsis Deo. For this glorious song was sung by the angels at Bethlehem over the crib of the Holy Babe. In Advent, the tongues of the angels are not loosened yet. The Virgin has not yet brought forth her Divine Treasure.
There is one feature that distinguishes Advent most markedly from Lent is the word of gladness, the joyful Alleluia! It is sung in the Masses of the four Sundays, and vividly contrasts with the somber color of the vestments. On the feasts of Our Lady during Advent and on the third Sunday of Advent, the organ bursts forth in joyous sound and the Altar is decorated with flowers. We are gladdened by the grand notes, and the rose-colored vestments.
These signs of joy, thus blended with the holy mournfulness of the Church, tell us, in a most expressive way, that though she unites with the ancient people of God, thus paying the debt which the entire human race owes to the justice and mercy of God, she does not forget that the Emmanuel is already come to her. This is the reason why the Alleluia accompanies even her sighs, and why she seems to be at once joyous and sad, waiting for the coming of that holy night on which her joy in the Bridegroom will expel all her sorrow. The holy Church, therefore, during the season of Advent, recalls with holy joy the arrival of her Jesus in His first coming.
There are many wonderful Advent traditions that have developed around the world. Advent in Mexico brings the religious ceremonies known as Las Posadas (Spanish for “The Inns”). This nine-day celebration that marks the journey of Mary and Joseph is held from December 16 to 24. Each evening in cities and villages across Mexico, a child dressed as an angel leads a processional, usually made up of children. They go to selected homes, where they are denied entry but often given refreshments.
In medieval and pre-medieval times, in parts of England, there was an early form of Nativity scenes called “advent images” or a “vessel cup.” They were a box, often with a glass lid that was covered with a white linen cloth, that contained two dolls representing Mary and the Baby Jesus. The box was decorated with ribbons and flowers (and sometimes apples). They were carried around from door to door.
In Advent, Holy Mother Church listens to the words of the prophets, to which she joins her own supplications. But every day, the Church labors for the second coming. Firstly, she prays that the spirit of Christ will penetrate deeply the hearts of any Christians not in full-communion with the Catholic Church, so that all Christians will be joined together in perfect unity. But the Church daily prays also for the non-baptized so they may be converted to the true light of Christ, which shines even for them.
Our Advent liturgies do not satisfy the Church’s longing for Christ; Holy Mother Church also aspires after a third coming which will complete all things by opening the gates of eternity. The last words of her Spouse ring in her ears, “Surely I am coming quickly,” and she cries out to Him, “Ah! Lord Jesus Come!” Holy Mother Church is impatient to be loosed from her present temporal state; she longs for the number of the elect to be filled up, and to see appear, in the clouds of heaven, the sign of her Deliverer and her Spouse. Her desires are expressed by her Advent liturgy:
“The nuptials of the Lamb are come, and His bride is prepared to welcome Him.”
But the day of His third and last coming to her will be a day of terror. The Church frequently trembles at the very thought of that awful judgment, in which all mankind is to be tried.
The Church does not fear for herself, because she is the Holy Bride of Jesus Christ, “holy and without blemish.” But her maternal heart is troubled at the thought that, on the same day, so many of her children will be on the left hand of that just Judge, and having no share with the elect. She is saddened by the sight of those who will be bound hand and foot, and cast into the darkness, where there shall be everlasting weeping and gnashing of teeth. This is the reason why the Church, in the liturgy of Advent, so frequently speaks of the coming of Christ as a terrible coming. And this is why the Church selects from the Scriptures those passages which are most calculated to awaken a salutary fear in the mind of such of her children as may be sleeping the sleep of sin.
This, then, is the threefold mystery of Advent. His first coming was in the flesh; the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The second advent of Christ is in the soul of the baptized Christian, but the third coming of Christ will be on the Last Day at the Final Judgment. Thanks be to God that Christ has come to save us. Pray now for the conversion of sinners and start with yourself. And as you meditate on the third advent of Christ, as you work out your salvation “with fear and trembling,” take Mary’s hand to guide you. St. Bernard said:
“In dangers, in doubts, in difficulties, think of Mary, call upon Mary. Let not her name depart from your lips, never suffer it to leave your heart. And that you may obtain the assistance of her prayer, neglect not to walk in her footsteps. With her for guide, you shall never go astray; while invoking her, you shall never lose heart; so long as she is in your mind, you are safe from deception; while she holds your hand, you cannot fall; under her protection you have nothing to fear; if she walks before you, you shall not grow weary; if she shows you favor, you shall reach the goal.”