“The Last Judgment will come when Christ returns in glory. Only the Father knows the day and the hour; only he determines the moment of its coming. Then through his Son Jesus Christ he will pronounce the final word on all history. We shall know the ultimate meaning of the whole work of creation and of the entire economy of salvation and understand the marvelous ways by which his Providence led everything towards its final end. The Last Judgment will reveal that God's justice triumphs over all the injustices committed by his creatures and that God's love is stronger than death.” (CCC 1040)
It's hard. The world wants us to put up our Christmas trees on or before Black Friday. We gorge ourselves on Christmas all at once and then we tire of it before the Christmas season actually arrives.
But what is Advent? What is the purpose of the season? What are we preparing for? How could we prepare?
We are preparing for the birth and the second coming of the Son of God. We grow in anticipation for Christ’s second coming, which is our final judgement — and honestly, that should foster a little bit of holy fear. I am not suggesting a legalistic or “Bah Humbug” kind of Advent, but one where the excitement builds progressively, giving rise to a bit of contemplation and even some penance along the way.
“The coming of God's Son to earth is an event of such immensity that God willed to prepare for it over centuries. He makes everything converge on Christ: all the rituals and sacrifices, figures and symbols of the "First Covenant.” He announces him through the mouths of the prophets who succeeded one another in Israel. Moreover, he awakens in the hearts of the pagans a dim expectation of this coming.” (CCC 522)
Current canon law does not cite Advent as an official penitential season despite the liturgical color for Advent being violet, like the color of Lent, which is a penitential season. According to the Code of Canon Law: Can. 1250 “The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.” However, in describing Advent, the Roman Missal uses this verbiage when it references norms for the Advent altar decorations and liturgical music: “...[Advent] should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this time of year, without expressing in anticipation the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord….”[GIRM 305]. This is also evident by not singing the Gloria during this season. In other words, the full joy of the season has not yet arrived and penance has been historically and traditionally practiced. Think fast before the feast.
Our celebration of Advent points us back to the last days of Mary’s pregnancy, the very first Advent. The Church defines that practice with the fancy term anamnesis, and this means to remember in a way that makes present from the past. We relive the event in a mystical way. The Mass is an anamnesis of the Last Supper, which was an anamnesis of the Exodus. Mary’s difficult journey’s destination was the moment Christ was born, not before, and we too can approach the day of the Nativity this same way. We can make present her journey in our hearts and in our homes.
“...should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this time of year, without expressing in anticipation the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord…. [GIRM 305].
With our homes being the place of our domestic churches, we can take cues from the rightly ordered altars and liturgies. One Sunday in Advent, the altar of our parish caught my attention. Evergreens encircled with violet and burlap. It was humble and stark, yet it drew me deeper into the mystery of the season. The veil revealing the majesty of Christ’s birth had not yet been lifted. I decided to practice this in my own home to draw us more into a longing for the coming of Christ, both as babe and in the second coming. This natural progression of decorating, while staying in the liturgical moment of the season, developed over time. I’d like to share this with you as an Advent option to implement in your own home as it fits you.
- First Week of Advent: I put out all of our greenery — trees, garland, Advent wreaths, door wreaths. All of these greens are wrapped in violet ribbon and a humble burlap is used for ribbons and tree skirts. You can go ahead and put the lights up during this process, but don’t turn them on just yet. This is when we put our Nativity sets out, minus baby Jesus. You can also keep back your Magi until the Epiphany.
- Dec. 6 (Feast of St. Nicholas): The night before, all decorations that have to do with the “Santa” or St. Nicholas side of Christmas go up. Stockings go up and get stuffed. We choose little gifts or needs such as shoes, socks or slippers. Of course, chocolate coins are a fun traditional gift reminiscent of the traditional story of the authentic St. Nicholas.
- Dec. 13 (Feast of St. Lucy/St. Lucia): The story goes that this young girl took food to Christians hiding from persecution in the catacombs and used a wreath with candles on her head to light the way. This virgin and martyr is therefore known as the saint of lights, making this a glorious feast day to turn on all of your Christmas lights — trees and all. I love the warm glow of Christmas lights in the quiet of the night.
- Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday): The pink candle is lit! Gaudete means Rejoice! This is when I start all final preparations for Christmas Day. We start to bake some cookies and work on final decorations and preparations for the big day. Decorating the Christmas tree begins this final week of Advent.
- Christmas Eve: Many enjoy decorating their tree on this evening but that has never worked out for us. We're typically busy with Mass and other preparations. When the kids go to bed, we finish wrapping gifts while watching the Christmas Mass from the Vatican and sipping our traditional piña colada. We finish by putting the gifts out under the tree. Don't forget Jesus, the ultimate gift, is finally laid into the manger. Finally, parents can then lay themselves to bed, or rather crash in exhaustion.
There are many options to live the season of Advent. There are so many, many other wonderful ways to observe Advent, and you can go big or go small. Finding the balance that brings peace and happiness to your family is important. Preparing our homes and our hearts for the Savior’s coming can be difficult because it is so countercultural and, admittedly, I sometimes feel a bit of a Scrooge. Yet, each time the expectation swells in my heart and the excitement for Christmas Day grows in size like Mary's womb, it solidifies this Advent option for our family. By God’s grace, when one says no to the world’s standard and says yes to Jesus, there is the hope of being more prepared to face Jesus at the Last Judgment.
“Marana tha,” the cry of the Spirit and the Bride: “Come, Lord Jesus.”
Becky Carter is a co-host of the Thriving in the Trenches podcast and a revert to the faith after 17 years away. She is also a co-founder of Helen Daily. A mother of five, she and her family live in Arkansas.