The Joy and Hope of Waiting in Advent

The joyful aspect of Advent pulls us out of our sorrow.

Gerónimo Antonio de Ezquerra, “The Visitation,” by 1737
Gerónimo Antonio de Ezquerra, “The Visitation,” by 1737 (photo: Public Domain)

I have always loved Advent. Even as a child, I was filled with the aching wonder of the season when my dad would lead us in singing O Come, O Come Emmanuel to the glow of the Advent wreath in the dark kitchen before dinner. My husband tells me the real reason that I love Advent is because of my melancholic temperament, for I love the feel of quiet waiting and planning with a twinge of sadness before we reach the festive joy of Christmas. We have sorrow in the fact that we are sinners and need a Savior to suffer and die for us. Yet, it is easy for me to get caught up in the waiting and longing for our Savior and miss that Advent is also supposed to be a joyful time. We are meant to have joy in our waiting.

We live in a world full of sorrow. We wait in a world full of longings. The world does not even know what it longs for as stores put out Christmas décor in October. The same merry songs we hear on the radio each year put up a façade of joy that is not really there. And the jollity of a worldly Christmas is worn-out by the time Christmas Day arrives and definitely does not last through the whole liturgical season.

The worldly Christmas does not know the deep HOPE and JOY that comes with Christmas. It has overlooked the God-made-man who came on the first Christmas Day. Therefore, it completely misses the continued joy of the season, one which the Church celebrates officially until the Baptism of Our Lord in the middle of January and the traditional, pre-Vatican II calendar of the Church marks until Feb. 2 on Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord.

It is hard to struggle against the worldly experience of Christmas, but in order to live out the Joy of Christmas we have to set aside the world’s impatience and focus on really experiencing Advent as a penitential season of waiting in joyful hope.

The joyful aspect of Advent pulls us out of our sorrow. It teaches us that waiting can be a joyful, exciting time. The Church emphasizes the joy of Advent by naming one of the four Sundays “Gaudete” which means “joy.” Advent strikes a balance of a penitential season full of joyful hope—a hope we experience in waiting for a baby, in waiting for the baby. Meditating on the expectant Blessed Mother is one way to enter into this joy.

This verse from Saint Paul in his letter to Titus sums it up the season of Advent well:

For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world, awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.” (Titus 2:13-14)

Advent is when we learn to renounce irreligion and worldly passions. We do this to prepare and purify ourselves for the coming of Our Lord, but it is done in joy because we know the he is coming. He came to save us from the sins we commit so we can be happy with him forever!

But how to we incorporate these ideas into our lives in Advent? When the world forgets that we are waiting for the second coming of Christ and his birth on Christmas, I try to help my family step back during Advent from jumping into the full passion of worldly Christmas cheer.

Guarding our hearts from indulging prematurely in festivities is a form of Advent penance. The hard part here is doing it joyfully instead of indulging in Advent grumpiness.

We do this by first of all having a joyful, Advent focused way of talking about early Christmas decorations. I say things like, “They are getting ready for Christmas,” or, “Our family gets ready for Christmas a little differently.” And then we go on to talk about our special Advent traditions.

There are several things we do to make Advent special, but separate from Christmas, some which are penitential, but all joy filled.

  • We have a home Advent wreath, lighting the appropriate number of candles at dinner. We switch to four red candles during Christmas.
  • We bake Christmas cookies and store them in the freezer during Advent, but do not eat them until Christmas has officially begun.
  • We listen to only Advent music or what we call “Winter” music until Gaudete Sunday when we put up our tree and put out our creche with the empty, waiting manger.
  • We honor St. Nicholas on Dec. 6 by putting out our shoes for treats and small gifts.
  • We make sweet rolls for St. Lucy’s Day, Dec. 13, after having waited all the way until her feast day to turn on our outside Christmas lights. We start on this day since her name means “light.” We keep these lights on every night until Feb. 2.

These little mortifications of waiting for the full joy of Christmas, while slowly readying ourselves for the coming of Our Lord, teach our hearts that waiting can be a peaceful, joyful time. It does not have to be full of anxiety or over-planning.

Another favorite tradition in our home is reading a Scripture selection and hanging a new ornament each day on our Jesse Tree. The tree starts off sparsely filled and is crowded with ornaments by Christmas Day. The tradition of the Jesse tree is rooted in medieval art, where tapestries and windows would portray the key figures of the Old Testament who are a part of the genealogy of Jesus. Jesse, an ancestor of Jesus is named in a prophecy in the Book of Isaiah: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1).

The Jesse Tree readings at the beginning of Advent start with creation and the early genealogy of Jesus and lead up to the birth of Christ, showing that God fulfilled his promise to his people to come the first time. They waited for him for thousands of years. We wait again today for the promise of the second coming.

When Christmas finally arrives, if we have entered fully into the waiting of Advent, we will discover the deep abiding joy of Christmas, one that we can cling to through the whole Christmas season. The wonder I had as a child at finding baby Jesus in the manger that sat empty until Christmas Day continues on in my children. We honor Christmas for the whole season by keeping our tree up and our creche out until Feb. 2. Inviting our children to imagine the scenes of the life of the Holy Family is a beautiful way to help them enter into Christmas. This entering in begins with Advent.

Advent will be over before we know it. Let us take time to consider if we are spending it in penitential, joyful waiting for he is coming soon.