Does Advent have a future? At first glance, that may seem like a strange question. Advent, the period of preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas, has been celebrated in one form or another for at least 1,500 years, and while the Catholic Church no longer universally prescribes fasting during this penitential season (fasting is still observed in the Eastern rites of the Church), She also clearly has no intention of giving the season up. For the foreseeable future, Advent will continue to be celebrated by Catholics and other liturgically minded Christians.
What I had in mind in asking whether Advent has a future, however, is something a bit different. For all of the talk of a "War on Christmas" over the last several years, the public celebration of Christmas seems to be doing just fine. That's not to suggest that certain forces haven't waged a War on Christmas, just that the public celebration of the holiday has proved rather resilient. Almost too resilient, in fact, since in the popular mind, the "Christmas season" begins earlier and earlier each year (despite the fact that the Christmas season really starts on Christmas Day itself).
And that has had dire consequences for the future of Advent—and, in a roundabout way, for the future of Christmas itself. In the public realm, Advent no longer exists. There is no period of preparation for Christmas; Christmas is celebrated more or less continuously from Thanksgiving until Christmas Day. Yet on Christmas Day, Advent still lies in the future—a future dominated now, in the popular mind, by the holiday for which Advent is meant to prepare us.
Perhaps we should rephrase my initial question. What is the future of Advent? If we continue on as we are, in one sense, Advent will have no future. And the same will be true of Christmas, because, in another sense, the future of Advent is Christmas.
That is why my friend Fr. John P. Mack, Jr., has said, "If you want to keep Christ in Christmas, keep Advent in Advent." By keep here, he means the sense of honoring or observing something, as in "Remember, keep holy the Sabbath day." Keeping or observing Advent helps us keep Christ in Christmas because Advent is meant to be a time of waiting, watching, hoping, longing, expectation—for the coming of Christ in the flesh at the first Christmas; for the coming of Christ in our hearts at this Christmas; and, ultimately, for the glorious Second Coming of Christ at the end of time, of which the first coming at Christmas was but a foreshadowing.
Unless we watch and hope and long for His coming, we cannot fully experience the joy that will accompany it.
By depriving ourselves of this period of waiting and expectation, by laying aside our spiritual preparations for the coming of Christ in order to enjoy more quickly the pleasures of the Christmas season, we not only destroy Advent, but the future of Advent, in both senses. And so if, in the future, Advent disappears from our lives altogether, we should not be surprised to find that the true meaning of Christmas—the coming of Christ into our world and into our hearts, and His Second Coming at the end of time—is lost to us as well.
(An Advent wreath with a central Christmas candle on a home altar. Photo © Scott P. Richert)