Advent is the opening liturgical season of the Church’s year. It has its own distinct character and popular piety should be informed by it, and lead towards it. In some ways popular piety can be seen as a bridge between the things of God and the things of the world, suffusing the world with Christian truth and values, and lifting the world to God, in praise, offering and an exchange of blessing. As a specific liturgical time, there are forms of popular piety that are specific to Advent, and others that take on a particular hue and mood in Advent. It is a time of waiting, conversion and hope. We wait to celebrate Christmas, the first coming of the Lord in human flesh, while assessing the way in which we wait for his return in glory at the end of time. The former leads us to focus on the past and the memory of salvation history, the latter leads us to focus on hope, if also vigilance and generosity, aware of a coming so glorious it can scarcely be imagined. Conversion, including almsgiving and penance and a focus on simplicity, is how we prepare for the coming of the Lord, be it now or in the future.
The Advent wreath, which the faithful can put up at home and school and perhaps at work, builds the sense of expectation, as successively we light candles reminding us of the faith, hope, role and message of the patriarchs, prophets, john the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. The candles take up the theme of God’s light coming into a dark world, a theme given extra depth in the northern hemisphere in the dark days of winter. Religiously themed Advent Calendars, perhaps with Scriptural texts and images, could be powerful too, and an effective catechesis. Make your own if they are not available! In some countries Advent processions are important. Attention to the Virgin Mary readily catches the popular imagination, and the Celebration of the Immaculate Conception can be an early focus for this, though she is not a major part of the Advent liturgical readings until the final Octave of preparation before Christmas. Preparation of the crib is one final act, and one that children find attractive, Christmas plays at school being another.
The challenge we face in Post-Christian cultures is not letting Advent be swamped by the secular celebration of Christmas, which is materialist and hedonistic in tone. It is in full swing throughout Advent these days. There is, I think, a lot to be said for cultivating forms of piety that are prophetic in regard to this slide into secularism, offering an alternative vision and to some extent also protecting ourselves from its excesses.
Advent should persuade us that we are pilgrim people, who receive life as a gift and look to its fulfillment in God. The coming of Christ brought, and will bring, this about but is also to transform how we live now. Mary’s pregnancy had its difficulties, Christ had no home at first and was soon a refugee. Christ entered the world a poor person in solidarity with the poor, and his story draws attention to the plight of the poor and homeless in our world. If we are to welcome Christ, with faith at Christmas, then our piety should find expression in Advent by our attention to the poor and homeless, and with a resolve to embrace simplicity, and not be over-materialistic at Christmas.
We need to allow Advent to be Advent – and Christmas to be Christmas. It too is a whole season, not just one day followed by a huge hangover. There is a lot to be said for having Advent themed hymn-music-word services in Advent, and keep Carol services proper for the Christmas season - though I realise there are pastoral reasons to adapt this (for instance, in schools shut over all the Christmas season). Perhaps sending Christmas cards could be postponed until the Christmas season, and the giving of presents spread across the Christmas season, or focused upon the feast of the Epiphany and its link to the Magi giving gifts to Christ, as happens in some Christian cultures. Such changes would simplify life in Advent and allow greater focus on its own features.
In offering these suggestions, I do not wish to be a kill-joy. I know that we live in the world, if we are not of it, alongside others and making connections matters. In regard to preparation for Christmas I realise that parents of children are probably under particular pressure to conform to worldly expectations and the demands of the advertisers. Popular piety is inspired in the hearts of each of us, and in new ways in new situations, by the Holy Spirit, so each of us can come up with appropriate forms of it. Nonetheless, there are real challenges to, and opportunities for, popular piety at Advent: it can be swamped by secularism but equally it can play a crucial role, and a developing one, in helpful us celebrate the true meaning of Advent (and Christmas for which it is the preparation), enabling us to shine like stars in a darkened world offering Christ to it (cf Phil 2:15-16), and being ready for his return.