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What Is Advent Really?
by Mary McEntee McGill
Each year it arrives—and we notice.
Each year it arrives—and we notice. We notice that Father now wears purple vestments and there is a large Advent wreath near the altar. We do not hear Christmas stories proclaimed from Scripture—only the stories of the promise of the Lord’s coming. All this is not too “Christmassy.”

But elsewhere, everything is Christmas. Shopping malls have been decorated and Santa Clauses have been evident since before Halloween. Parties are planned at work and at home. Neighbors have lights on their trees and along their roofs and “the holidays” are all people talk about. So is it really Advent?

I want to share this story. When I was a student at the University of Santa Clara, the Women’s Sodality took its annual retreat during the first week of the Christmas/New Year’s break. The retreat was held in silence at a retreat house on a cliff in Santa Cruz. As the retreat began, we were all angry because most of our peers headed home. A few took off for the mountains to ski; some even flew to Hawaii. But those of us in the Women’s Sodality were loaded into a bus to go on retreat.

The retreat house was on the Pacific coast where it was cold and gray that time of year. When we arrived we were directed to quietly put our suitcases in our bedrooms and come down for our first prayer and dinner.

Our hearts and minds were ready for conversation and festivities. But we were called to sit silently in the dining room for supper. All around us, we saw no Christmas decorations except for a large Advent wreath in the living room. After supper Father presented his first lesson from the Ignatian Exercises. We then prayed together and silently skulked up to bed. I remember standing at the window in my bedroom looking out at the ocean and telling the Lord that I was missing Christmas.

The next day was sunny and Father gave several more talks on the Ignatian Exercises. We had Scripture to read and journaling to do. Around 4:00 Father called us together and told us we could talk. I think he wanted us to discuss our spiritual understanding of what we were learning but, instead, we came out with our complaints. All our friends were off having fun and we were here. Where was Christmas?

In a gentle voice, Father told us that it was not yet Christmas. He explained that this was Advent, and Advent was a time to search our minds and souls as we prepared for the gift of the Christ Child. This was a time of preparation, reflection, and anticipation.

It was the first time I truly began to understand Advent. I began to understand the meaning of the prayers around the Advent wreath. It never occurred to me that the coming of Jesus is so special that we must take time to prepare our hearts, minds, and spirits. The days of Advent are for meditating on the wondrous gift of Jesus Christ.

That night I stood at the window in my bedroom and told the Lord that I was missing Christmas—but that I was ready to wait for its joyful arrival.

Over the years, I’ve worked to be patient and prayerful during Advent. It is never easy. But Advent is our Catholic tradition. We are called to patiently wait and prepare ourselves for the joy of Christ’s coming. Can you do this?


Reading: Isaiah 7:10-14

Sharing: Think of things you do during Advent that help you prepare for Christmas. Are these things you did as a child? Do you have a tradition with your family now? How do you share Advent with the children you teach? (Encourage your group to share memories and traditions. Sharing your own experiences could help start things. Close with a spontaneous Advent prayer.)

May God bless you. Have a prayerful Advent and a joyous Christmas!

Mary is the Pastoral Associate for Religious Education and Liturgical Education for Holy Trinity Parish in Dallas, TX. She is the author of Stories to Invite Faith Sharing (Resource Publications).

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