Questions with Fr. #24: Advent – Its Origins & Methods of Preparing for Families

As we enter the Advent season, listeners submitted questions about Advent, ranging from its history and origins, to how best to celebrate Advent with children, and whether or not it’s ok to put up Christmas decorations during Advent!


Welcome to the SSPX Podcast, delivering sermons, lectures, and the spoken word from across the English-speaking World. On this episode of Questions with Fr., we’re speaking about Advent, the time of the liturgical calendar that is devoted to preparation for the coming of our Savior.  Father will answer questions submitted by our listeners on the topic of Advent, ranging from the history of Advent itself (why it’s four weeks instead of forty days for Lent) as well as suggestions on how to make the Advent season more advantageous for children and families. We’ll also discuss the not so commonly known origins behind one of your favorite Advent songs. All this and more is coming up on the SSPX podcast. If you would like to support the SSPX podcast, please visit and you can make a donation there.  It is free to listen to, but we hope that you can support this endeavor. It takes a great amount of resources, so a monthly gift of $10, $20, or $25 will help us immensely. If you’re unable to donate please subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcasts or Stitcher, and rate the podcast.  Leave a review and a rating and that will help more people to see the SSPX podcast in their suggested podcast feed. With that said, we’ll turn now to Father Robinson on the topic of Advent.

We are here with the SSPX podcast – a special edition, I guess we could call it, Father Robinson? – where we are tackling one topic this week with several questions, and that topic is Advent. Hello Father Robinson, how are you?

Doing fine, Andrew!

Very good, and you are in Denver, you are the Prior of Denver as we’ve already discussed and currently traveling around a little bit and we appreciate you making the time to talk with us about these topical questions as we head into Advent.

Glad to be back on, Andrew, and I think this is an important subject coming up on this liturgical season of Advent; this is just such a rich season. There’s a lot we can profit from, I believe.

Absolutely and it’s not one that’s like Lent, where it’s all-consuming, but it is a season where we can, like you’ve said Father, gain some profit and prepare a little bit.  We reached out to our faithful and invited them to submit questions on the theme:  are there any things you wanted to know about Advent that you didn’t know, or any advice that you would like to ask Father?  So we’ll dive right in with the first one on that theme, which is preparing. Are there any good meditations for children, a mother asked, or dinner table discussion topics for kids to get them in the right mind for Advent?

Well, probably a lot of our listeners know that Angelus Press, just a few years ago, produced a book by a Society priest in France, Father Troadec, he was the rector in the seminary in Flavigny for a couple of decades.  He put together some meditations from Advent to Epiphany, and of course there’s books for the other times of the Liturgical season.  I read the book myself, I found the meditations quite helpful, and I think parents could read that book themselves and get some ideas about how to discuss Advent with their children.  And obviously, The Liturgical Year by Dom Guéranger is the go-to resource for anything on the Liturgical year.  The first volume of The Liturgical Year by Dom Guéranger is really fantastic to help us understand how the Liturgy forms our spirit at the time of Advent. You know, there’s different times of the year where the Liturgy is more intense. Right now, after the Feast of Pentecost we go to the Sundays after Pentecost, and it’s really a bit of downtime in the Liturgical year, for Liturgical intensity.  Things ramp up considerably when we get to Advent, and we start the liturgical year of course with Advent, so it’s a very rich season in the Liturgy in the sense that there is a very careful crafting of the Masses.  Also the Divine Office is very rich, so there’s a lot to be gained by actually studying the Liturgy during the time of Advent.

Absolutely and those are great starting points, but taking a step backwards, we can read the liturgical year in these books and start to piece together some things, but what would you say is the guiding principle or overriding theme of the season of Advent?

Well the theme is just simply one of anticipation. Advent of course means “a coming” so we’re waiting for the coming of Our Lord with this sort of joyful anticipation.  I think it’s important to point out something I’ve sometimes preached about:  it’s a spiritual good that we’re looking for. We recognize that we are sinners, that without a Redeemer we’re completely and utterly lost.  We know that God has promised that he’s going to send us a Redeemer and we have this period where we wait, where we’re confident that the promise of God is going to be fulfilled, and we’re begging God to hasten, to come quickly.  There are so many times during the season, during the Office, where there’s this very lovely anxiety on the part of the Church, where the Church is saying, “come Lord, don’t delay, don’t take Your time, hasten, come quickly,” and it’s just repeated over and over again. Meanwhile there’s various things the Liturgy does to help us sense the absence of Our Lord; the name of Our Lord is kept out of the of the conclusions of the Collects, you usually hear “per Christum Dominum nostrum” but that doesn’t appear in the Collects for the Sundays of Advent.  The Masses of the Advent Sundays are repeated during the week. If there’s a Ferial Day the priest has to repeat the Mass of the Sunday.  If people are going to Mass during the week; they get that same Mass over again and it helps keep them in that that Advent mood.  And then of course St. John the Baptist is pretty dominant during the Advent season since he appears in the gospels and he has this preaching of penance and preparation; he’s preparing of course the Jews for the coming of Our Lord and in the Liturgical year, the Church uses him to prepare us for the coming of Our Lord as well.  We’re sort of in tune with the Liturgy with the Sunday Masses, weekday Masses, and even the Office itself.  We’re able to really foster this good spirit of anticipation of the coming of Our Savior.

And is the Church, in setting up the Liturgy the way that they have done, mirroring the anticipation that people had for the coming of the Savior for those four thousand years or so until the birth of Our Lord? Are we kind of doing that same thing in just the four short weeks?  There’s kind of a parallel there, I don’t know if it was done on purpose or not but are we kind of marrying that same sort of thing, reliving that same sort of anticipation, just in a much shorter timeframe?

Yes, the whole Liturgical year represents the history of the world.  The time of Advent is the time before the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and it can be represented by four different periods, four weeks.  Obviously the longest Advent would be four complete weeks, and the shortest Advent would be three weeks and one day if Christmas falls on a Monday.  There’s certainly the intention on the part of the Church to think of ourselves as before the coming of Christ and waiting for Him to come during that Advent period, however long it is.

And you were talking about the Liturgy of the Mass, Father.  Are there other places within the Liturgy that people can gain some merit and some insight into the proper feeling of the season?  That sounds really modern, the feeling of the season, but for lack of a better way of saying it, lay faithful don’t often recite or read the Divine Office.  Is there anything in there that maybe we could pick up and read, or look through during the season?

Yes, really you’ll find all these things in The Liturgical Year by Dom Guéranger, but those who are praying the Office as the priests do really get a sense of the increasing anticipation as we get closer to Christmas.  The Church, as it were, gets more and more excited about the coming of Our Lord.  As we draw closer to Christmas, there’s this very beautiful practice of the Church to have special antiphons for Vespers, for the seven days before Christmas Eve, from December 17th to December 23rd.  There’s a different antiphon – a very short verse that precedes the praying of The Magnificat.  You pray The Magnificat whenever you pray Vespers, it’s near the very end of Vespers, you always pray the hymn of Our Lady, that Magnificat and it has an antiphon – usually an antiphon is just a standard antiphon, the same for each day, but for these seven days the Church has made a special antiphon where we address Our Lord with a special title each day.  There’s the title of Our Lord as Emmanuel, Our Lord as King, Our Lord as the rising sun, Our Lord as the Key of David, Our Lord as the root of Jesse, Our Lord as “Adonai” or the Hebrew word for Lord, and then Our Lord as wisdom; of course Our Lord is the Incarnate wisdom.  And in each of these antiphons they repeat the word “veni” several times, “come and save us”, and something very interesting about them is that if you take the first word from December 23rd back to December 17th, they form an acrostic in Latin; so if you take the first letter of each word they form the Latin words “ero cras” and that would mean “I will be here tomorrow”.  It’s just a very beautiful process.  At the seminary we would put up the one letter for that day after we pray Vespers, and slowly but surely build up the words “ero cras” and then you’re like wow, I think Christmas is almost here.

And just to get back to the original question about it helping the family and helping children get prepared for Christmas, that would be a really neat visual aid, something that’s tangible, almost like an Advent calendar or wreath where you’re counting down.  You could do the same thing with Post-it notes or something on the wall, counting it out, that would be really neat to do with the family as well.

Absolutely, I think that’s something very beautiful that can be done with the children. I think it is important of course to explain to the children what Advent is about, but I think the visual tools have an even greater impact.  So if the family has an Advent wreath where they have the four candles, and they only light the one candle the first week, and perhaps turn the lights off and light the candle during the family rosary, and sing a verse of “O come, O come Emmanuel” for instance.  In fact, believe it or not, “O come, O come Emmanuel” has seven verses.  They’re just an English translation of those antiphons that I was just talking about.  You can read the hymn “O come O come Emmanuel and you’ll see the seven names that are given to Our Lord, so it’s a way for the faithful to relate to that.  But even if they don’t say the Divine Office, they can come in touch with the Divine Office just by getting out “O come, O come Emmanuel” so it may be singing a different verse of it each night.  When I was growing up – they have them still today – the Advent calendars where you have all the days leading up to Christmas and you open a different door each day and there’s something in there, maybe a piece of chocolate or some sort of image.  I think these are just excellent tools to create that Spirit of anticipation, and to give the children the sense that something wonderful is going to happen, the coming of Our Lord, and we are getting ourselves ready, and we’re even very much looking forward for the coming of Our Lord.

That’s wonderful.  Moving on to another question from a mother who wanted to know about preparations for Advent and also for Christmas, she said everyone is against celebrating or preparing for Christmas until just the day of, or Christmas Eve, but I’m sure Our Lady didn’t wait until the day of to set up her house for her child.  Father, do you have any thoughts or meditations on that?

Well, I think there’s a distinction that she’s making between celebrating and preparing, and that’s really the important distinction.  Advent is a time of preparation, not a time of Celebration, so if you’re doing things that are preparing for Christmas then that’s good.  I know some people set up their tree and just don’t put anything on it or they don’t adorn it, so they have an unadorned tree, and then as you get closer perhaps you put a few more things on the tree and the gifts only go under the tree on Christmas Eve, something like that. The main thing is that they keep the spirit of preparation and anticipation before Christmas arrives, that they don’t go into celebration mode.  We don’t want to go into celebration mode where we’re walking around with candy canes singing “Joy to the World” a week before Christmas starts, because if we do that we’ve just ruined Advent.  So the Church gives us a time of celebration and a time of preparation.  The time of preparation is Advent, the time of celebration is the twelve days, really even the forty days, of the Christmas season.  That’s the important thing.  I don’t care if you put up the tree beforehand as long as you put it up in a spirit of preparation, and not a spirit of celebration.

That makes sense, Father.  So, is putting up some holly or some winter time or Christmas Eve decorations around the house before the Christmas season starts officially not a big deal there, as long as we have the mindset internally?  And also with the family with the children letting them know that what we’re doing is to prepare for Christmas, and again I’m thinking back to the original question.  I know my mother, and other families I know, think “well the Church says we can’t decorate for Christmas yet, but holy cow it’s December 24th and it’s crazy, and I can’t do it all!” I don’t think that’s what you’re saying, Father.  The Church doesn’t say you can’t decorate for Christmas on December 20th or 18th as long as it’s done with a mind towards not starting the celebrations too early.

Right, and as I say it should be very sober.  You can do a two-stage decoration where initially you have wreaths that are unadorned, or a tree that’s unadorned; it’s very sober, you don’t ramp up the decorations until you get closer to Christmas.  Even just having an unadorned tree might help the spirit of preparation. They see the tree is there, but not adorned.  I think it is very important for the children to understand that we are celebrating the coming of Christ, and so the giving of gifts is for us to imitate God giving Himself.  So the real gift of Christmas is Our Lord – God gives Himself to us by coming on this Earth – and we want to imitate that giving of God Himself by giving gifts to one another, to explain the symbolism behind the exchange of gifts.  It’s not just a way to make sure Walmart stays in business.  It’s much more to indicate the spiritual significance of Christmas and that you have the greatest gift of all, Our Lord, and we want to imitate His generosity by giving gifts to one another.

That’s beautiful.  Another question about Advent, and I’ll confess I didn’t even know that Advent wasn’t always the time period that it was, but the questioner said why do we start Advent on Quadragesima?  Why not the old fashioned Martinmas, which is referring to the feast of Saint Martin?

I don’t know what they’re talking about, with Quadragesima, I don’t know if they might be confused with the Lenten period, I’m not sure what they mean, but it is true that in a certain region of the Church, just in France, they did have a practice of starting Advent on the first day after the feast of St. Martin.  The Feast of St. Martin is November 11th, then forty days after that you would have the feast of Christmas.  They called it “the Lent of St. Martin” because it was forty days and the people fasted three times a week during that time.  They also abstained from meat the whole time.  That was a local practice in France; Advent is one of those things that didn’t exist from the very beginning. It was a liturgical custom that appeared in certain places and slowly spread to the universal Church.  It’s not like there was a standardization that took place from the beginning; it slowly but surely became standard, and then at least in the western Church, we got to the current practice where we start Advent on the Sunday closest to the feast of St. Andrew.  So, Advent can start as early as the 27th of November and as late as the 3rd of December.  That’s the current length, and as to why that practice of France did not become the universal practice, why we didn’t make Advent parallel to Lent, where Advent is forty days as Lent is forty days, to be honest I don’t know the answer to that but I strongly suspect that the Church did not want to make Advent to seem to be the same as Lent.  There might be a little confusion if we made Advent forty days and as penitentially intense as Lent is, because the fact is that Lent is a more intense penitential season.  We’re really focused on our sins and the death of Our Lord, whereas with Advent we’re just preparing for the coming of Our Lord. We’re doing penance in order to dispose our souls like those Disciples of St. John the Baptist, where he was saying “repent and do penance in order to get ready for the coming of the Messias”.  That’s not as intensely penitential as Lent, I think the Church doesn’t want Advent to be so intense in that regard as Lent is.

As much as it counts, Father, I think Holy Mother Church made the right decision in putting it after the Feast of St. Andrew, not St. Martin, but I might be a little bit biased.

Well St. Andrew is a great saint, and I’m sure he deserves that.

So you touched on this a little bit, that this season is of preparation, not as much a penitential season.  Could you talk about that just for a minute?  What is the difference therein – and I get the difference is because we’re preparing for the coming of Our Savior, and it’s not a more sober season as Lent is – but is there a difference between doing penance in preparation versus doing penance in reparation?  Could you say that the penances during Lent are more of almost a reparation, or is there a way that we can look at the sacrifices or penances we make during Advent and Lent differently?  I guess that’s my broader question.

Yes, Advent is like a long vigil, you have a big feast and the day before the big feast you would have a fast and an abstinence, just recognizing that if you do that you’re probably going to be more spiritual on the feast.  Just the practice of abstaining from food the day before will make you more spiritually ready for all the graces of the feast itself.  If you extend that to the four weeks before Christmas, that spirit of the Vigil, that’s kind of what Advent is like.  We want to really dispose our souls for the grace of the feast, and for the coming of Our Lord.  We receive Him in the best dispositions possible, and that is a very different thing from saying we’re going to have forty days and we want to make up for our sins, do reparation for our sins, and we want to enter into the sufferings of Our Lord Jesus Christ, recognizing He suffered for us, so I want to willfully do some actions of suffering, of penance and mortification myself, in order to unite with His sufferings and His death.  So, it is a very different optic and obviously we wouldn’t want to make the preparation for a big feast seem as an equivalent to uniting with the sufferings of Our Lord.  Obviously we want our penance to be more intense when we’re uniting those sufferings and doing penance for our own sins, than if we’re just disposing our souls for a big feast day.

Well Father, thanks, that helps a lot just to help us get in the mindset and understand some of these things a little bit better.  While we’re on the topic of preparing for Advent and Christmas, any favorite celebrations or traditions that you had in your family for Christmas that are special to you?

I have to confess that I’m an addict when it comes to Christmas songs.  It amazes me how many Christmas songs there are, Christmas carols, and the intrinsic appeal of the nativity scene.  There’s something about the scene of Our Lord in that cave in Bethlehem that always touches us and creates that special Christmas atmosphere and motivates every generation to break out in song.  I think it’s a very good practice for families to just get together and sing Christmas carols, and to learn these Christmas carols.  A lot of them have very beautiful verses that speak about the coming of Our Lord.  To go through four or five verses of a song, it does help to learn these songs, to have the practice of singing them when you’re growing up, and to have them as a part of your Christmas celebration.  If we just pass up those songs, we don’t sing together as a family, I think we’re really missing out on a lot.

That’s great advice Father, and maybe on the next episode of the podcast we can we can dive into some of the symbolism and the meanings behind some of these Christmas carols like “O come O come Emmanuel”, that would be fascinating.  I didn’t know that it was taken from the Liturgy, from the antiphons, that it was so fascinating, I would love to chat some more about that.

Yeah I thought you were going to suggest we have a singalong together, you and I, for some Christmas music, but we can do that other thing instead, that would be fine.

Father you have a beautiful singing voice.  Mine? – no, we would lose listeners fast.  Father, as always, thank you so much for taking the time and for diving into some of these questions as we come into Advent. I wish you a blessed Advent and hope to chat with you again maybe even before Christmas.

That would be great Andrew, thank you.

Thank you for listening to this episode of Questions with Fr. on the SSPX podcast.  Don’t forget to subscribe and rate the podcast. Just by going to Apple podcast or Stitch or whatever podcast app or program you are using, this will help more people to see the podcast in their feeds.  Until the next episode, thank you for listening, and God bless you.