Advent Then and Now (Part 2)
Preparing for Christmas
The overlay of "Christmas preparation" on this original sense of Advent came about in the High Middle Ages.
The season took on a joyful expectation of the Nativity of the Lord as celebrated on Christmas and Epiphany, while still encouraging a focus on the Lord's return at the end of time.
This expectation found expression in both senses with readings from the prophets on messianic themes, most notably the writings of Isaiah and the preaching of John the Baptist.
It is interesting to note that while in the Roman Rite there was developing this structured period of "penitential expectation," the Eastern liturgies in general had no prolonged counterpar t.
By exception, the Byzantine liturgy celebrates a commemoration on the Sunday before Christmas of "all the Fathers who down the centuries have been pleasing to God, from Adam to Joseph, husband of the Most Holy Mother of God."
The Syrian rite calls the weeks before Christmas the "Weeks of Annunciations."
Commemorated are 1) the annunciation to Zechariah, 2) the annunciation to Mary, 3) the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, 4) the birth of John the Baptist, and 5) the annunciation to Joseph.
The modern liturgical practice in the Roman Rite divides Advent in two: the first half (through Dec 16) retains the oldest theme of Christ's Second Coming, while the privileged weekdays, as well as the Sundays, of the second half (Dec 17-24) focus more specifically on the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies in Jesus the Christ.
In the Eucharist on the four Sundays of Advent, the first readings of all three cycles present these prophecies clearly.
Most prominent are those of the great prophet Isaiah, but we also hear those of Baruch and Zephaniah.
The prophecies specifically foretelling a woman of David's line giving birth to Emmanuel are reserved for the Fourth Sunday, coming from Isaiah, Nathan (in the book of Samuel), and Micah.
The second readings on Sundays analyze the fulfillment of the prophecies in Christ and offer us guidance in the spiritual life deriving from their themes.
Saint Paul, Saint James, Saint Peter, and the author of the letter to the Hebrews exhort us to "Awake from sleep," and "Pray without ceasing," for "The Lord is near."
The Gospel readings for the First Sunday exhort us to be watchful and ready.
The Second and Third Sundays present John the Baptist in his role as prophet of repentance and forerunner of the Messiah.
The Fourth Sunday's Gospels borrow from the Eastern "Annunciation" tradition, recalling the Annunication to Joseph in Year A, the Annunciation to Mary in Year B, and the Visitation in Year C.
In the Liturgy of the Hours Isaiah again has a dominant place.
The patristic passages in the Office of Readings draw heavily on the Eastern writers, although Western Fathers are prominently represented, for example Saint Cyprian, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Irenæus, Saint Bernard.
This later writer has offered a classical commentary on Missus est ("The angel Gabriel was sent...").
Other ancient and traditional elements have been retained; for example, one of the Responsories on the First Sunday of Advent is Aspiciens a longe ("Watching from afar"), a beautiful, brief poem incorporating phrases from the psalms in a dramatic exposition of the Second Coming.
Pride of place among the antiphons belongs to the "Great O Antiphons" for the Magnificat from December 17 to December 23.
These antiphons, which the Roman Church was singing as long ago as the time of Charlemagne, not only synthesize the messianism of the Old Testament in its purest form; but, using ancient biblical images, they also present the divine titles of the incarnate Word, while their Veni ("Come!") is freighted with all the present hopes of the Church.
In them the Advent liturgy reaches its culmination. [P. Jounel, The Liturgy and Time]