I suspect that most of us aren't really clear on the significance of this special time in the Church's worship calender. Most of us are already stressing out about a single day at the end of December, the day of Christmas (now less than a month away). Oh sure, those of us who are regular or semi-regular communicants or church-goers are aware of something called Advent -- we see the purple and rose vestments and candles, the change in the emphasis of the prayers, readings and hymns -- but most of us might see it as just so much background clutter to distract us from the real work of preparing ourselves and our families for Christmas -- i.e., the shopping, cooking, eating, socializing and traveling business that leaves us worn out and broke (and, all to often, spiritually empty).
But, in fact, the Advent season is a time of (potentially) great spiritual growth and graces. It is something akin to the liturgical season of Lent (though not as penitential in tone) with it's Great Theme being the work of preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ. This is done on three levels: (1) Where we look with God's chosen people in the Old Testament toward the first coming of the Messiah, a coming that was fulfilled in Jesus Christ; (2) As we look forward to Christ's continuous coming into our lives every day as Lord and Savior; and (3) As we look forward in joyful hope to Jesus' Second Coming either at the end of time, or at the end of each of our earthly lives (whichever comes first). Advent is all about being a season of anticipation and fulfilment. Religiously speaking, in a very real sense, Christmas has very little meaning without Advent, any more than a trip to Disneyland is arguably less meaningful without the giddy air of expectation leading up to it.
Over at the blog of First Things, Joseph Bottum writes the essay that I would have liked to have written, The End of Advent. It is absolutely worth the read.
Having said all that, it's not to late to get into the spirit of things and start celebrating Advent now. As in today.
For more information about the origins of Advent, I'd recommend viewing this very informative post over at the Canterbury Tales blog, Top 10 Things to Know About Advent.
For information about Advent traditions you can celebrate with your family to make the season more spiritually fruitful (and fun), please see the article Catholic Traditions for Advent and Christmas.
A number of excellent resources for Advent can be found at Don Schwager's web page, Readings and Prayers for Advent.
A good way to prepare during Advent is to meditate on the daily Scripture readings from the Mass. You can find those at the website of the U.S. bishops. If you want to listen to some wonderful daily reflections on these readings, they can also be found at the bishop's site, or by downloading or subscribing to the daily Food For the Journey podcast by Sr. Ann Shields at Renewal Ministries.
I'll be posting more resources (and perhaps reflections) all through Advent. In the meantime, find a way to make this the most blessed, peaceful and spiritually fruitful Advent ever for you and yours, and be prepared to meet Our Lord with authentic joy on Christmas Day.