While repentance is a constant theme of the Christian life, the Catholic Church gives the faithful two extended seasons of the liturgical year for the specific purpose of examining our lives and changing our ways. Lent may be better known, but Advent is also a time for sacrifice and humility.
The Advent period of four Sundays preceding Christmas is a time for fasting and repentance, an important part of preparation and anticipation. It makes sense from a liturgical perspective, even though the self-denial of Advent may clash with the secular season of shopping, planning and partying which now occupies November, December, and even October.
The Church wisely anticipates the great feasts of Christmas and Easter with subdued seasons of penance, giving the faithful a chance to reflect on their need for the transforming grace that Christ offers.
Before the celebration of Christmas, then, some spiritual housekeeping is often in order - for the Church at large and for her individual members. St. John the Baptist announces this same need for purification in Matthew's Gospel, with his call to "prepare the way of the Lord" and "make straight the roads through the wilderness."
Chris Gilbert, director of religious education at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Charlottesville, Va., offers some advice for integrating Advent into parish life during the busy approach to the Christmas season.
"Bring the Holy Family into your home during Advent," he recommended. "Place visible reminders of their journey to Bethlehem around the house for your kids to see."
Gilbert explained his family's tradition of processing the Three Wise Men, represented by stuffed figurines, from one side of the house to the other as each day of Advent passes.
"We let the kids move the Wise Men a little closer to the manger scene each day, until Epiphany - 12 days after Christmas day - when they finally arrive at the baby Jesus' cribside. It's a tangible way to explain to them the hope we have in awaiting Christ."
In an Angelus address for the first Sunday of Advent, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a reflection on this theme of hopeful waiting.
"Expectation or waiting is a dimension that flows through our whole personal, family and social existence," said the pope. "One could say that man is alive as long as he waits, as long as hope is alive in his heart. And from his expectations man recognizes himself: our moral and spiritual 'stature' can be measured by what we wait for, by what we hope for."
"Every one of us, therefore, especially in this season which prepares us for Christmas, can ask himself: What am I waiting for? What, at this moment of my life, does my heart long for?"
"And this same question can be posed at the level of the family, of the community, of the nation," the pope observed. "What are we waiting for together? What unites our aspirations, what brings them together?"
He concluded by citing a "mysterious correspondence" between "the waiting of God" to fulfill His plan of salvation, and the patience of Mary, "the creature 'full of grace,' totally transparent to the loving plan of the Most High."
"Let us learn from her, the Woman of Advent, how to live our daily actions with a new spirit, with the feeling of profound expectation that only the coming of God can fulfill," Pope Benedict urged the faithful.