It’s Advent! And every Advent, we hear the same old story. This is a time to prepare for Christmas. While not wrong, it’s an incomplete story. In fact, it’s only one-third of the story. And the rest of the story is pretty good. And so, maybe we should look at that other two-thirds.

What is the full story of Advent?

Advent has three main emphases:

The first highlight of Advent is a preparation for the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus. Believers remind themselves during Advent that we live in an intermediate time between the Paschal Mystery, when the Lord Jesus destroyed sin and death by his own Passion, Death, and Resurrection, and his Second Coming, when the victory won at Calvary will be consummated and time and space as we know it will end.

The Christian’s joyful hope, therefore, is focused on the Second Coming. The Lord Jesus could return tomorrow, or in a decade, or in a century, or in six millennia from now. Regardless, we are to be prepared and eagerly await his return. This emphasis was predominant in the early Church. It’s diminished in our own time, as the Second Coming is either completely dismissed or so thrown into the far future that it has no bearing on our faith today.

Advent reminds us that we are to eagerly hope for the Lord’s return, and this is the first lesson of the Advent season.

After this first highlight, there’s a tendency to jump right to the Christmas preparation. But there is something in between. As we joyfully await the return of the Lord Jesus, we live here and now. We aren’t in the End Times, and we aren’t in Bethlehem. We are in the present moment.

Advent has a highlight for our lives now. As we will see him in all his glory at the end of time, and as he was present among us in the Holy Land over two thousand years ago, the Lord Jesus is just as present to us now in the sacraments.

The second highlight of Advent is the sacraments. These sacred mysteries, visible signs of invisible grace, were given to us by the Lord Jesus. They are regular, even daily, opportunities for us to encounter the Lord Jesus and to walk with him and receive the help of his grace. As the Lord taught us, he did not leave us orphaned. And as he appeared and was with the disciples on the way to Emmaus in the breaking of the bread, so he is present to us and with us in the Eucharist and the other six sacraments.

In the Advent season, therefore, we are invited to go deeper in our understanding of the sacraments and to better prepare our souls to receive them and the graces that come with them. This middle lesson of Advent of the sacraments is the one that is often not known or neglected by distraction or familiarity.

In this Advent season, the Church encourages us to see the sacraments as gifts given by the Lord Jesus as the chief means by which we can draw closer to him. We are urged to receive the sacraments, study the reasons for their significance and meaning, explore their depth, and put their graces to action in our lives and in our world.

During Advent, we can ask ourselves: Do I fully grasp my Baptism and Confirmation? Do I receive Holy Communion consciously and in a worthy manner? When was the last time I went to Confession? Do I truly understand the Anointing of the Sick? And for many: How am I using the graces of Holy Matrimony in my marriage?

Only after the End Times have been stressed and the sacraments have been properly emphasized can we turn to Bethlehem. And turning there, our hearts are filled with warmth. The reality that, after ages upon ages of waiting, God fulfills his promises and prophecies and sends us a Savior is overwhelming. The manifestation of love, salvation, peace, and hope raises our spirits and converts our hearts.

But many do not get to Bethlehem. They ride over the End Times, ignore the sacraments, and when they near Bethlehem, they take a detour to the local department store. For some, “Christmas” isn’t about the saving events of Bethlehem. It’s about gifts, decorations, and parties. Advent tempers this inclination. It affirms good things, while also pointing us to our proper focus.

And so, Advent has three highlights: the End Times, the sacraments, and Bethlehem, and each is much-needed. They serve us and help us to keep our focus on the things of faith, while living and appreciating the things of the world.

Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby

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