The Beginning of Advent: Preparing for Christmas

The Catholic Church is the most interesting institution in the world. Like her Founder, she is both human and divine. She is human because her members are of human origin; she is divine because Christ, the Head of these members, is divine. The Catholic Church is the greatest storyteller in the world. She is the greatest of all narrators because, being human, she is like a great nourishing mother, Alma Mater, as she soothes her children with the happiest of tales in a most loving manner. She is the most profound and interesting storyteller, for she tells the story of God in His relations with men, the greatest story ever told: the story of God becoming man, the Incarnation.

Now, how does holy Mother Church tell this story and where does she get her facts? The Church tells the story by her liturgy, by her chant and, as it were, by painting word-pictures in the liturgy, thus arresting our attention by turning over the pages of the life of Christ for our spiritual growth.

The first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of the storytelling by narrating the anticipation of Christ’s coming and by highlighting the story in the word-picture of the day’s liturgy. The liturgy of the Catholic Church is most impressive and contains a world of meaning if we will but look beneath the surface and meditate reflectively. Every movement of the priest and the people, every psalm, every prayer that is uttered has a meaning and contains a fund for spiritual enrichment that the witness is left to ponder in his heart and unlock the riches of wisdom.

It is our purpose in these thought pieces, in preparation for Christmas, to show the role that prayer and penance play in the life of each member of the Mystical Body of Christ to unlock these rich mysteries and truths. Thus, by a close following of the Gospels for the Sundays and by our thinking with the Church in a liturgical sense, we shall listen to the story related by our fostering, holy Mother Church concerning the greatest character of all history, Jesus Christ, true God and true man.

There is a pamphlet by Dom Gueranger entitled “Advent, Its Meaning and Purpose,” which tells of the preparation that should be made by Christian hearts before Christmas. In such a spirit of prayer during these Advent days, we come to the feet of our holy Mother; we listen to the most interesting of all storytellers and to the greatest story of them all. In spirit we go to a church in the City of Rome, St. Mary Major’s, where we kneel before what holy tradition has presented to us as the Crib of Bethlehem.  

On the first Sunday of Advent all Christians in the spirit of the liturgy of the Mass make their way to this station. It is for this reason we find the prayers of the Mass centering around the birth of Christ and the Virgin Mother and the crib. The story of the long awaiting for the coming of Christ is told in the words of Isaiah the prophet, who of all the prophets Sacred Scripture speaks most directly and explicitly of the Messiah. For each day of Advent, Holy Mother Church has her priests and religious pray something from the writings of this great prophet in their recitation of the Divine Office.

In this prophecy Isaiah speaks of the Lord, who exalted His children only to have them despise Him; he speaks of Israel, “who hath not known the Lord and His people, who hath not understood.” And he continues: “They have forsaken the Lord, they have blasphemed the Holy One of Israel; they have gone backwards” (Isaiah 1:3–4).

The words of the Prophet should make a deep impression on our hearts at the beginning of the holy season of Advent. Who of us can hear without trembling this voice of the Lord, who is despised and unknown even at the very time when He is to come and visit His people? “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts” (Psalm 94:8).

The story is being retold. The Church, in accents of solemnity, in colors of penitential purple vestments, in notes of solemn music is repeating for us the burden of her message. Christ is coming to save the world, which, as Isaias says, is sickened—“the whole head is sick and the whole heart is sad” (Isaiah 1:5).

Christ is coming to judge the world, for “the powers of heaven shall be moved, and then they shall see the Son of man coming on a cloud with great power and majesty. When these things begin to come to pass, look up, and lift up your heads, because your redemption is at hand.” (Luke 21:26–28).

Members of Christ’s Mystical Body, hearken to the words of “the greatest story ever told” as recounted by the greatest mother of them all. The story is Christ’s coming, or Advent. The mother is the Church. Now is the hour for us to rise from sleep, to save the world from chaos, to rescue souls from materialism, and to save them for the all-powerful dignity of incorporation in Christ’s Mystical Body. We shall do this by beginning to reform ourselves, by spending Advent prayerfully, by “casting off the works of darkness . . . and putting on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:12, 14).

This article is taken from a chapter in Spiritual Steps to Christmas by Msgr. Aloysius F. Coogan, which is available from TAN Books.

Msgr. Aloysius F. Coogan was an American priest ordained in 1931 who ministered in New York. For 25 years, he was a writer for the Catholic News, a New York Archdiocesan periodical. He died in 1967. He is the author of Spiritual Steps to Christmas, republished by TAN Books in 2022.