Advent Preparation through the Daily Office of Readings

(left to right) The Prophet Isaiah, by Raphael (1511); St. Bernard, by Francois Vincent Latil (17th c.); St. John of the Cross, by Francisco de Zurbaran (1656); St. Ambrose, by Matthias Stomer (ca. 1633-39).

One of the great treasures of the Church is its Morning Office of Readings, which throughout the liturgical year offers both scriptural readings and meditations from the fathers and doctors of the Church, along with the writings of saints and church documents. The Office of Readings is always a rich and edifying source for reflection, but this is especially true during Advent, when themes of humility, patient waiting, expectant joy, mysterious wonder, and prophetic fulfillment are all palpable in the preparation of the hearts of the faithful and of the Church for the Advent of the Christ child. Marian themes are pervasive during Advent too—no surprise, given the birthday awaited.

In this article, I explore the thematic structure of the Office of Readings during Advent in the hope that those who do not already practice this form of prayer might be drawn to do so, and that those who already pray it might be induced to enter more deeply into this treasure of the Church.1 

Isaiah and Advent
Every day of the Office of Readings during Advent begins with a reading from the prophet Isaiah. This prophetic book of the Old Testament is especially redolent with Advent themes, including the suffering and exile of Israel and its hope for salvation, the expectation of the Lord’s Day of victory, the hope for the coming of the Messiah and the Messianic Age, the restoration of the Holy Mountain, the in-gathering of the nations, and, of course, the saving action of God. The book of Isaiah is pregnant with prophecy in all these regards, pointing to the coming of the Son of David, the universal and everlasting King of Peace, who will fulfill all of the Covenants. The extended meditation on the prophecy of Isaiah in the readings for Advent conveys the great sense of yearning among the righteous for deliverance from darkness, and it reflects the wretchedness of humanity as it “laid long in sin and error pining!” In Isaiah, the great expectation and forlorn hope rises in a great crescendo until the Promise of the Ages is finally born. During Advent, however, the Church gives us only the Isaiah who longs for this fulfillment, and so the prophecy to Ahazof a virgin bearing a child, the great Emmanuel, the God-with-us, and the Wonder Counselor and Prince of Peaceis absent. The Church saves this prophecy for other Marian feasts during the year. Likewise, the Church saves Isaiah’s Messianic Age fulfillment prophecies for the days after Christmas, leading up to the feasts of the Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord.

Thus, the Isaiah we hear from in Advent is the one still yearning for fulfillment, still in the throes of exile, difficulty, and darkness, hoping and waiting in faith for God’s intervention, and the fulfillment of his promise. Only gradually do the passages of Isaiah move from despondency toward greater confidence. Listen, for instance, to the prophet’s mood on the first Sunday of Advent: “Ah, sinful nation, people laden with wickedness, evil race, corrupt children. They have forsaken the Lord, spurned the Holy One of Israel, apostatized. … The whole head is sick, the whole heart faint. … Your country is waste, your cities burnt with fire …” But on Monday comes the great prophecy of the in-gathering of the nations to the Holy Mountain, and the restoration of Jerusalem, and the victory of peace: “One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” But this note of future optimism is crushed through the readings of the rest of the week, lamenting the faithlessness and punishment of Israel.

The Second Sunday of Advent promises a change in masters of the palace. Shebna is cast out, and the more trustworthy Eliakim receives they key of the House of David. This is followed on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday by other prophecies of restoration on the Holy Mountain, and of just judgment of the good and the wicked, in which the dead shall live again, and the exiles and outcasts shall return, and the vineyard of the Lord shall blossom. On the Third Sunday of Advent, we hear Isaiah proclaim a day of the Lord in which “the deaf shall hear” and “out of the gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see.” On Monday, Isaiah prophesies the coming of the Teacher, who will no longer hide himself. On that day, “there will be streams of running water,” and on it, the Lord “binds up the wounds of his people, he will heal the bruises left by his blows.” On Tuesday and Wednesday, the judgment of the Lord is meted out in mercy to the repentant, and in swift justice on the wicked. On Thursday, Isaiah predicts justice and peace for those who fear in the Lord. Friday’s passages from chapter 33 of Isaiah proclaim: “Your eyes will see a king in his splendor.”

In the final week of Advent, the pace of Isaiah quickens with the delivery of Israel by the hand of Cyrus, which we read on December 17. The Lord’s victory and justice are proclaimed on the following day, and on December 19, disaster is predicted for Israel’s tormentors. On December 20, new prophecies of Israel’s future glory are announced. Next comes the prediction of the new Exodus on December 21, and the restoration of Zion on December 22. The Lord proclaims his solicitude for Israel, proclaiming that even should a mother forget her child, “I will never forget you.” Then, on the final two days of Advent, Isaiah prophesies the salvation of the children of Abraham, and calls for them to “Awake!” He bids them to “shake off the dust, ascend to the throne, Jerusalem. … How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings glad tidings, announcing peace, bearing good news, announcing salvation, and saying to Zion, ‘Your God is King!’” Then, on Christmas morning, the Church cites Isaiah, bidding the faithful to recognize the “shoot sprouting from the stump of Jesse, and the spirit of the Lord rests upon him.”

During Advent, the Church pairs with Isaiah various and rich non-biblical readings from the early Church fathers and doctors of the Church who meditate on the long years of expectation leading up to the Mystery of the Incarnation. Four major themes for each of the four weeks of Advent can be discerned in these readings. The first week of Advent meditates on the nature of the various Comings of Christ. The second week meditates on Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Testament Covenants and promises. The third week meditates on the New Covenant of love and beatitude preached by Jesus, and the fourth week meditates with Mary as she joyfully awaits the coming of her Lord.

Week One of Advent: The Comings of Christ
The first week of Advent’s Morning Readings is dominated by the themes of humble and patient waiting for the Coming, the Advent, or Presence of the Lord. In the reading on the First Sunday of Advent, St. Cyril reflects on the two-fold coming of Christ: his birth at Bethlehem, and his Final Coming in Judgment. This continues a theme heard in the Sunday Mass readings in the last weeks of Ordinary Time, and on the Feast of Christ the King. As St. Cyril notes, the First Coming is marked by patience, and the Second Coming, by the “crown of a divine kingdom.” The First Coming is hidden in the virgin’s womb, and born as a babe in a manger. The Second Coming is marked by an unmistakably visible return in glory and judgment. St. Charles Borromeo echoes this theme in Monday of week one’s reading, taken from one of his pastoral letters: “The Church asks us to understand that Christ, who came once in the flesh, is prepared to come again.” But, as St. Charles also notes, the Christ who came to Bethlehem, and the Christ who will come as judge, can also come to us in the present: “When we remove all obstacles to his presence, he will come, at any hour and moment, to dwell spiritually in our hearts, bringing with him the riches of his grace.” On Tuesday, Saint Gregory Nazianzen reflects on the mystery of the Incarnation, the coming of God into the womb of Mary, God taking on human nature, so man “might gain the riches of his divinity.” He comes as a savior to restore our divine likeness, as a Good Shepherd “lays down his life for the sheep,” and as “the light of all lights.”

St. Bernard continues a meditation on the comings of Christ in the Wednesday readings, proclaiming: “We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. … In his first coming, our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming, he comes in spirit and in power; in the final coming, he will be seen in glory and majesty.” Elaborating, Bernard notes that “In the first, Christ was our redemption; in the last, he will appear as our life; in this middle coming, he is our rest and consolation.” This intermediate coming contains “Christ the Way,” who calls us to love, obedience, and good works. Bernard urges us to “feed on goodness” and “remember to eat your bread” so as to “Fill your soul with richness and strength.” Here, Bernard invokes the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Indeed, Christ, truly present in the Eucharist, comes to us every time we receive Communion. Indeed, the parousia means both a coming, and a real presence of God. The babe is born to rest in a feeding trough in Bethlehem, the House of Bread. Indeed, there is much food for thought here. On Thursday of week one, the Church gives us a reading from a commentary on the Diatessaron by Saint Ephrem, the deacon, who meditates on the Second Coming of Christ, which is hidden from the knowledge of men. The time of this Second Coming is hidden, “so that all generations might await him eagerly.” There will be signs to accompany the Second Coming even as there were signs of the first coming: “As holy men and prophets waited for him, thinking that he would reveal himself in their own day, so, today, each of the faithful longs to welcome him in his own day, because Christ has not made plain the day of his coming.” Thus, we must “Keep watch” because the “Lord commanded us to be vigilant” in both body and spirit.

The readings of week one end with a plaintive appeal by St. Anselm in his prefatory prayer to his Proslogion in which he asks for the grace to seek and find union with God. After a long and touching appeal for God to open his mind and heart, and to reveal his presence, Anselm closes his prologue with this final prayer: “Teach me to seek you, and when I seek you, show yourself to me, for I cannot seek you unless you teach me, nor can I find you unless you show yourself to me. Let me seek you in desiring you, and desire you in seeking you, find you in loving you, and love you in finding you.” The Advent spirit of expectant revelation suffuses Anselm’s plea, which St. Cyprian echoes on Saturday with a meditation on the value of patience, “a precept for salvation given us by our Lord.” In this life, patience is foundational to our faith and hope. “Patient waiting,” says Cyprian, “is necessary if we are to be perfected in what we have begun to be, and if we are to receive from God what we hope for and believe.” So we must not grow weary of good works, for love, itself, as St. Paul assures us, is always patient. In Advent, Mary waits patiently, together with the Church. At every Mass, after praying the Our Father, the Church avows that we must “await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Week Two of Advent: Christ as the Fulfillment of Prophetic Promise
In week two of Advent, the daily morning readings shift to reflection on how the coming of Christ fulfills the Covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David along with the promise of the prophets. Week two reflects on Christ as the fulfillment of salvation history. The Second Sunday of Advent reading offered by the Church comes from a commentary on Isaiah by Eusebius of Caesarea, who connects Isaiah’s proclamation of “a voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord,” to the ministry of John the Baptist. Eusebius asserts: “The words of this prophecy were fulfilled when Christ and his glory were made manifest to all: after his baptism, the heavens opened, and the Holy Sprit, in the form of a dove, rested on him, and the Father’s voice was heard, bearing witness to the Son: ‘This is my beloved Son, listen to him.’” Isaiah then prophesies that: “Climb on a high mountain, bearer of good news to Zion.” This, Eusebius declares, is what Jesus did, preaching first to the Jews, and then to the nations through his Apostles.

St. John of the Cross continues this theme of prophetic fulfillment in a treatise taken from his Ascent to Mount Carmel, in which he points out that all of the revelations, words, visions, signs, and symbols of God to the people of Israel were but “partial glimpses of the whole, or sure movements toward it.” They are fulfilled in the coming of the Word himself, Christ our Lord. Thus, the task of the Church is to do what the Father commanded at the baptism of Jesus by John: “‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased; hear him.’  In my Word, I have already said everything. Fix your eyes on him alone for in him I have revealed all, and, in him, you will find more than you could ever ask for, or desire.” This is the capstone of revelation, St. John asserts. Again, asking us to imagine the Father speaking to us, St. John writes: “You do not need new teachings or ways of learning from me, for, when I spoke before, it was of Christ who was to come, and when they sought anything of me, they were but seeking and hoping for the Christ in whom is every good.”  God the Father, then, has spoken definitively and has fulfilled his revelation to Israel in Jesus, his beloved son. This, St. John insists, is what the Father says to us “as the whole teaching of the evangelists and Apostles clearly testifies.”

On Tuesday of week two, the Office of Readings offers a reflection taken from Lumen Gentium, in which the Church ponders its own pilgrim nature, seeking holiness and dispensing grace in an imperfect world, as it travels in history toward the fullness of the kingdom. Salvation has already “begun in Christ,” who being “lifted above the earth … drew all things to himself,” and who, from his resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit, continues to work “unceasingly in the world, to draw men into the Church, and through it, to join them more closely to himself, nourishing them with his own body and blood, and so making them share in his life of glory.” What has begun in Christ continues in the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and, so, God brings to fulfillment the work he has begun in his pilgrim Church. On Wednesday, St. Augustine assures us that: “God established a time for his promises, and a time for their fulfillment. The time for promises was the time of the prophets, until John the Baptist; from John until the end is the time of fulfillment.” God promised a savior and he sent Jesus in fulfillment of that promise, because the promises “seemed impossible to men.” Thus, God sent us his Son to show us the way to immortality, justification, and glory. “It was not enough for God to make his Son our guide to the way; he made him the way itself, that you might travel with him as leader, and by him, as the way.” Thus did Jesus come among us to be born, die, rise again, ascend to heaven, and then, from his throne at the right hand of the Father, to come again in final judgment. Thus do we wait in faith for the final fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.

On Thursday, St. Peter Chrysologus reminds us that love moves God to save, and man to see God. Meditating on God’s promises, and call to Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, St. Peter observes that these great patriarchs were “wounded by love.” Thus, they longed to see God’s face. This was Moses’ request of God and so, too, that of the psalmist. The Church invites us in this meditation to see this desire of the patriarchs as being fulfilled in the coming of the Christ child. In Jesus, our brother, friend, and redeemer, God has taken on a human face, and it was visible first to Mary and Joseph, then to shepherds and wise men, to Simeon at the Temple, and finally to the Apostles, the disciples, and the throngs who wished to hear him speak or to be healed.  The desire to see the face of the Beloved—this too has been fulfilled at Christmas and for all ages to come.  Does this love burn in our own hearts so that we will see his face when he comes?

In the final two days of the second week of Advent, the Church meditates on Our Blessed Mother. St. Irenaeus offers a meditation on Eve, our disobedient mother in the flesh, and on Mary, our obedient mother in the spirit. He demonstrates how Mary’s obedience, like that of her Son’s, repairs the disobedience of Eve, even as Jesus’ obedience repairs the disobedience of Adam. This wonderful meditation recalls, from the Book of Genesis, the protoevangelium, the first Gospel or good news of a savior. Even as death has entered the world through the sin of our first parents, God’s word to the serpent indicates that a savior is to come through the seed of the woman. Mary’s obedience to God’s will allows the savior to enter the world as a man, and to crush the head of evil, sin, and death, and to restore the children of men to life: “The one lying in wait for the serpent’s head is the one who was born in the likeness of Adam from the woman, the Virgin.” So it is, that the Covenant of God with Adam and Eve, lost by the latter’s disobedience, is restored and renewed in the obedience of the Mother and her Son. Blessed Isaac of Stella closes out week two of Advent with a meditation of the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God and Mother of the Church, which is, itself, a mother to its spiritual children. Isaac of Stella closes with this beautiful observation: “Christ dwelt for nine months in the tabernacle of Mary’s womb.  He dwells until the end of the ages in the tabernacle of the Church’s faith. He will dwell forever in the knowledge and love of each faithful soul.” Let us pray in this Advent season that our souls might be tabernacles of Christ’s love.

Week Three of Advent: The New Covenant of Love and Beatitude
Ultimately, because God is love, the Incarnation is a love story, a story of God’s love for us, his children, revealed first in a manger, and then on a cross, through which our wounds are healed, and, then, through resurrection to new life made possible by the Lord’s sacrifice. Christ is the Way, and he shows us the way through his New Covenant of Love.  The Church meditates during the third week of readings in Advent on this New Covenant of Love. Augustine prepares us to understand the Word of God, and his Gospel, as a matter of “the heart.” The Heart of God speaks to the heart of men, and men speak from heart to heart. Just as John the Baptist was the voice preparing the way, so the Church, through its preachers, seeks to reach the heart. As Augustine says: “let us observe what happens when we first seek to build up our hearts. … so that the word already in my heart may find a place in yours, I use my voice to speak to you.” The New Covenant of love is about strengthening hearts. St. William of Thierry continues on Monday in this vein: “What else is your salvation but receiving from you the gift of loving you, or being loved by you?” And again: “you first loved us so that we might love you—not because you needed our love, but because we could not be what you created us to be, except by loving you.” Thus, says William, on Christmas, “while all things were in midnight silence (that is, were in the depths of error), he came from his royal throne, the stern conqueror of error, and the gentle apostle of love.” Thomas a Kempis, in his Imitation of Christ, reminds us on Tuesday that our salvation begins in humility, the great virtue of Christ who humbled himself. Humility opens our hearts to the goodness and grace of God, so that we might find and radiate peace through justice to our neighbor. The New Covenant beatitudes of poverty of spirit, and meekness of heart, are demonstrated by Jesus, our brother, who came in the poverty and meekness of a child to announce our common childhood in God the Father, and our common salvation through himself, the Son. We must become like him in poverty of spirit, and meekness of heart, if we are to be his disciples, and seek the Kingdom. Thomas points to Christ as the source of humility, goodness, and peace.  In the example of the infant Jesus, we learn to live the first beatitudes.

St. Irenaeus reminds us on Wednesday that our final beatitude—that is, to see God in the fullness of his glory—cannot be achieved without purity of heart. Only those who serve God “in holiness and justice all our days” can achieve such beatitude by the power of God’s grace. On Thursday, the Church draws on Dei Verbum to remind us that “Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, sent as a man to men, speaks the words of God, and brings to perfection the saving work that the Father gave him to do.” His Word frees us “from the darkness of sin and death … to raise us up to eternal life.” Augustine reminds us on Friday that our perfection is possible only in our humble attitude of prayer toward the Father, especially in the prayer of our inmost heart. In the third week of Advent, the virtues of humility and trust, of righteousness, purity of heart, and peace, all of which are revealed in the New Covenant of Love exhibited by Jesus, prepare a way in our hearts for the Word himself, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Week Four of Advent:  Waiting in Joyful Expectation with Mary
St. Leo the Great begins the final days of Advent with a meditation on the genealogies of Jesus, provided to us in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, as a way to enter into the mystery of the Incarnation. The son of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is the “true and perfect man” who effects our reconciliation with God, because of his divinity and his condescension, to become one of us. Indeed, Leo writes that “unless he had stooped to be one in substance with his mother, while sharing the Father’s substance, and, being alone free from sin, united our nature to his, the whole human race would still be held captive under the dominion of Satan.” God ordained this from all eternity, but “the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon the Virgin, nor had the power of the Most High overshadowed her, so that within her spotless womb, Wisdom might build itself a house, and the Word become flesh.”

On December 18, the Church favors us with a beautiful reading from the ancient Letter to Diognetus, which provides an answer to the question, why did God wait so late in human history to save us? The answer, says the ancient writer, is that human pride needed to be humbled. We were not yet ready to meet God until “our wickedness had reached its culmination.” Then, alone, would the world be ready so that the “kindness and power” of God might become evident to us beyond our wildest dreams. Following this theme, St. Irenaeus relates that God allowed us, in pride and disobedience, to wound ourselves, so that we might be healed by his great act of mercy through his Son, who took on our flesh and dwelt among us. “For this reason, the Lord himself gave, as the sign of our salvation, the one who was born of the Virgin, Emmanuel. It was the Lord himself who saved them, for, of themselves, they had no power to be saved.”

On December 20, the Church commends to us a truly beautiful meditation on the Annunciation by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In this homily in praise of the Virgin Mother, Bernard reflects on the power of Mary’s “yes” to the will of the Father. According to Bernard, everyone awaits Mary’s answer to Gabriel. Gabriel waits. We wait. “Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family” begs an answer. “Abraham begs it, David begs it.” “All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you.” Indeed, the whole human race awaits an answer. Bernard beseeches the Holy Virgin to let her “humility be bold” and her “modesty be confident.” And finally, with heaven and earth waiting in anticipation, Mary replies: “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word,” and so did salvation enter the world through the chamber of Mary’s womb. From this wonderful meditation on the Annunciation, the Church bids us in the next day’s reading for December 21, to meditate with St. Ambrose on the Visitation. Mary, learning from the angel about her cousin Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, hastens to the hill country, where a precious encounter will take place between the boys gestating in their mother’s wombs. Thus does the Holy Spirit of Jesus encounter John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb. Mary is filled with the Holy Spirit so that Jesus might be conceived in her womb, and, when Mary visits his mother, John recognizes Jesus, and is filled with that same Holy Spirit. He “leaps for joy,” and his mother Elizabeth, too, is filled with the Holy Spirit. Then Mary herself rejoices in God her savior. We become like Mary, Ambrose declares, when we allow our souls, which are made in the image of God, to magnify the Lord. When we allow the image of God to be magnified in our souls, we, too, are exalted. On December 22, the Venerable Bede reflects on Mary’s Magnificat, pointing out that God’s grace works only in the humble of heart, by which he lifts up the lowly. We can be like Mary and declare: “The Lord has exalted me by a gift so great, so unheard of, that language is useless to describe it, and the depths of love in my heart can scarcely grasp it. I offer, then, all the powers of my soul in praise and thanksgiving … I joyfully surrender my whole life, my senses, my judgment, for my spirit rejoices in the eternal Godhead of that Jesus, that Savior, whom I have conceived in this world of time.”

The final two days of Advent end with a meditation by St. Hippolytus on the hidden mystery of the Incarnation of the Eternal Word in time and history, and with St. Augustine’s great hymn on the joy of Christmas: “Awake, mankind! For your sake, God has become man.” Truth is “born of a virgin” and justice looks down from heaven on the newborn child, gift of God to the world of men. “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.” By the sheer grace of the Christ child can heaven and earth be joined in such a bond of unity, so that “we might be men of good will, sweetly linked by the bond of unity.” In this way, the Church ends its Advent meditations of expectant joy, which culminates in the fullness of joy on Christmas Day.

An Advent retreat with the Morning Office of Readings is a great way to prepare for Christmas. The tradition of the Church, and its reservoir of wisdom, open up for us rich insights into the mystery of this joyful season. For those who preach the Word, the Office of Readings is a wonderful source for homiletic themes during Advent, as it is at any time of the Liturgical Year.  But in the Advent readings, there is especial excitement and wonder.  I invite you to join me during this coming Advent in entering into the mystery of the Incarnation with many of the great saints and doctors of the Church, who so loved the One who so loved us, to take on our humanity so that we might share in his divinity.



  1. All citations are taken from Volume I of the Liturgy of the Hours for Advent (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Company, 1975).
Deacon Robert F. Gorman, PhD About Deacon Robert F. Gorman, PhD

In addition to his duties as University Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Texas State University, Deacon Gorman serves at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in New Braunfels, Texas, and also teaches government and theology at John Paul II Catholic High School.