As we reach the final days of this season of Advent, the sacred liturgy draws our attention to the Lord’s imminent coming in a number of ways. First, the beautiful antiphons which adorn the daily singing of the Magnificat from 17th December – the “O Antiphons” – intensify our prayer, and add a certain urgency. In these texts the Church petitions her Lord under a different title each day, and for a different need. These prophetic titles – like many of the lections at Mass in the past few weeks – remind us that the coming of Christ is the fulfillment of the old dispensation. By calling on the Lord as Radix Iesse, Emmanuel, and so forth, we proclaim our belief that in Christ all prophecy and preparation is ended; he is the alpha and the omega, and in him all things find perfection.
Secondly, our physical preparation for the coming feast now takes on a new ardour. This doesn’t involve running around to find a bargain on the last-minute Christmas gift, but rather focussing in on what is to come; fixing our gaze on the soon-to-be occupied manger. The Church in these days calls us to redouble our penance and resolve, and this is reflected in many laudable traditions and disciplines. In some countries, the meal on Christmas eve rivals that of the following day; not with meat as the main dish, but fish. Just as we abstain on Fridays – as a sign of our desire to be united to the Lord’s sacrifice on the cross and in preparation for the Sunday Eucharist – so, before major feasts of the Christian year, we do similarly. This is why there is a particular richness in the Ember Days – found in the calendars of the personal ordinariates and the extraordinary form, and optional (at the discretion of the episcopal conference) in the ordinary form of the Roman Rite. In these, too, we become more restrained in our eating, marked by fasting and abstinence. And in the celebration of the Mass, the Roman Rite traditionally includes extra lections and orations to be sung together with the instruction flectamus genua, somewhat reminiscent of the air of penitence during the petitions of Good Friday.
When I was young, in the winter my mother would tell me to take off my jumper in the house, in order that I would feel the benefit of it when we went outside. So in these final days of preparation, we endure a small sacrifice now in order that the warmth of the coming solemnity might be more acutely felt.
So may these days be marked by a certain austerity in our actions and in our prayer. May they stand as a contradiction to the rightful extravagance of the coming feast and the worldly anticipation that is already all around. May they be days pregnant with the expectant joy that comes because God has become man for us through the divine gift of his incarnation. And by our observance of these rich disciplines, may we make room – worthy room – for the Lord Jesus in our hearts, he who comes to free us from the bonds of sin, ‘so that he may find us watchful in prayer and exultant in his praise’ (Preface II of Advent, Ordinary Form).