Advent-the Front Door to Christmas / Spiritual Meditations

advent wreath

Many of us are aware of Advent through candle lighting during church services or the use of an Advent Calendar. It is a season of the liturgical year observed in most Christian denominations and is part of the wider Christmas and holiday season. Practices associated with Advent also include praying an Advent daily devotional, erecting a Christmas tree or a Chrismon tree, lighting a Christingle, as well as other ways of preparing for Christmas, such as setting up Christmas decorations, a custom that is sometimes done liturgically through a hanging of the greens ceremony.

In the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, the Western Rite of the Orthodox Church, and the Anglican, Lutheran, Moravian, Presbyterian, and Methodist calendars, Advent commences on the fourth Sunday before Christmas (always falling between 27 November and 3 December), and ends on Christmas Eve on 24 December. In the Ambrosian Rite and the Mozarabic Rite of the Catholic Church, Advent begins on the sixth Sunday before Christmas, the Sunday after St. Martin’s Day (11 November).

The equivalent of Advent in Eastern Christianity is called the Nativity Fast, which differs in length and observances, and does not begin the liturgical church year as it does in the West.  It is a period of abstinence and penance practiced by the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Church and Catholic Church in preparation for the Nativity of Jesus on December 25..

So, as you can see, Advent varies around the world. But what does Advent represent and how did it begin?

Biblical Basis of Advent

The name ‘Advent’ was adopted from Latin ‘adventus’, meaning “coming; arrival”, a translation of the Greek word ‘parousia’. In the New Testament, this is the term used for the Second Coming of Christ. Thus, the season of Advent in the Christian calendar anticipates and celebrates the “coming of Christ” from three different perspectives: the physical nativity in Bethlehem, the reception of Christ in the heart of the believer, and the eschatological Second Coming.

The Eastern Nativity Fast does not use the equivalent parousia (Second Coming) in its preparatory services.

History of Advent

It is impossible to claim with confidence a credible explanation of the origin of Advent. The start of Easter in Christian history is tied to Passover and some surmise that December 25th came to be associated with the birth of Christ as a result of it falling during the December Solstice, the darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. The coming of the Light of the World may have made a lot of sense in so much darkness.

In 380 AD approximately 15% of the Roman Empire was Christian.  When Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the legal religion (and was key in establishing the creed of Nicaea), the vast majority of citizens sought to become Christian. The normal three-year preparation period for baptism, included a final forty days of intense preparation during Lent, which was followed by baptism at Easter.

But a single Easter season could no longer accommodate all those being made ready for baptism. Advent was developed primarily to provide an alternative time later in the year for the final preparation of candidates. Baptism would typically occur at Epiphany, the end of the Christmas Season, when Christians remember the coming of the Magi and celebrate the baptism of Jesus. This is why many older baptismal fonts include depictions of the Magi bringing gifts.

The first written evidence of Advent is found in modern Spain and Europe (Hispania and Gaul). Probably the earliest official mention of Advent practices comes at the Council of Sargossa (AD 380).  Advent may also have been created to refute a gnostic-inspired movement called Priscillianism.

Similar to Lent, Advent developed as a penitential season of varying lengths. According to Saint Gregory of Tours the celebration of Advent began in the fifth century when the Bishop Perpetuus directed that from St. Martin’s Day on 11 November until Christmas, one would fast three times per week; this is why Advent was sometimes also named “Lent of St. Martin”. This practice remained limited to the diocese of Tours until the sixth century.

The Council of Macon held in 581 adopted the practice in Tours and soon all France observed three days of fasting a week from the feast of Saint Martin until Christmas. The most devout worshipers in some countries exceeded the requirements adopted by the council and fasted every day of Advent as did monks after the Council of Tours of 567. The homilies of Gregory the Great in the late sixth century mention four weeks to the liturgical season of Advent, but without the observance of a fast. However, under Charlemagne in the ninth century, writings claim that the fast was still widely observed.

By the eighth century, Advent was generally observed for six weeks in the East (as it is to this day) and seven in the West. By the 12th century, it became shortened in the West to four weeks.

In the thirteenth century, the fast of Advent was not commonly practiced although, according to Durand of Mende, fasting was still generally observed. As quoted in the bull of canonization of St. Louis, the zeal with which he observed this fast was no longer a custom observed by Christians of great piety. It was then shortened to the period from the feast of Saint Andrew (30 November) until Christmas Day, since the solemnity of this apostle was more universal than that of St. Martin.

When Pope Urban V ascended the papal seat in 1362, he simply forced people in his court to abstinence but there was no question of fasting. It was then customary in Rome to observe five weeks of Advent before Christmas. This is particularly discussed in the Sacramentary of St. Gregory. Ambrosian or Milan Liturgies where six weeks of fasting is mentioned. The Greeks show no more real consistency; Advent was an optional fast that some began on 15 November, while others began on 6 December or only a few days before Christmas.

As Protestant churches formed there were varying Advent observances as exemplified in Methodist history. When John Wesley revised the Church of England liturgical calendar for use by American Methodist in 1784, he kept Advent and its four Sundays. However, the 1792 General Conference dramatically simplified the ritual, removing nearly all of the church calendar and the associated readings for each Sunday. As a result, Advent became a “lost practice” among most American Methodists for well over a century. While a few hymns related to Advent were retained, it wasn’t until 1965 that specific ritual resources for Advent were included in The Book of Worship of The Methodist Church.

By the time Advent was restored to Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren practice in the mid-20th century, there were other significant developments in the cultural practices of Christmas that impacted Advent in those congregations. The Christmas season as a cultural practice was no longer the 12 days beginning with Christmas Eve. Instead, it had become the nearly 30 days from American Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve. This meant that even though the 1965 Book of Worship included readings and prayers focused on the second coming of Christ, many congregations expected Advent to conform to the cultural Christmas focus on the birth of Jesus.

The Catholic liturgy of Advent remained unchanged until the Second Vatican Council (1965) which introduced minor changes, differentiating the spirit of Lent from that of Advent, and emphasizing Advent as a season of hope for Christ’s coming now as a promise of his Second Coming.

By 1992, United Methodist liturgy and an expanded selection of Advent-specific hymns all helped United Methodists understand and reclaim the original focus of Advent on the second coming of Christ. And Come to the Waters, the primary United Methodist resource for preparing candidates for baptism, includes guidance for using Advent as a season for final preparation for baptism.

And this is where we are today.

Some Interesting Advent Customs Around the World

In England, especially in the northern counties, there was a custom (now extinct) for poor women to carry around the “Advent images”, two dolls dressed to represent Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary. A halfpenny coin was expected from everyone to whom these were exhibited and bad luck was thought to menace the household not visited by the doll-bearers before Christmas Eve at the latest.

In Normandy, farmers employed children under twelve to run through the fields and orchards armed with torches, setting fire to bundles of straw, and thus it was believed driving out such vermin as were likely to damage the crops.

In Italy, among other Advent celebrations is the entry into Rome in the last days of Advent of the Calabrian pifferari, or bagpipe players, who play before the shrines of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Italian tradition. This is to represent the shepherds who played their pipes when they came to the manger at Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant Jesus.

Since 2011, an Advent labyrinth consisting of 2500 tealights has been formed for the third Saturday of Advent in Frankfurt-Bornheim.

Variations on the Advent Wreath

The keeping of an Advent wreath is a customary practice in homes and churches. The concept of the Advent wreath originated among German Lutherans in the 16th Century. However, it was not until three centuries later that the modern Advent wreath took shape. 

The modern Advent wreath, with its candles representing the four Sundays of Advent, originated from an 1839 initiative by Johann Hinrich Wichern, a Protestant pastor in Germany and a pioneer in urban mission work among the poor. In view of the impatience of the children he taught as they awaited Christmas, he made a ring of wood, with nineteen small red tapers and four large white candles. Every morning a small candle was lit, and every Sunday a large candle. Custom has retained only the large candles.

Variations of the themes celebrated on each of the four Sundays include:

  • The Prophets’ Candle, symbolizing hope; the Bethlehem Candle, symbolizing faith; the Shepherds’ Candle, symbolizing joy; the Angel’s Candle, symbolizing peace
  • Hope–Peace–Joy–Love
  • Faithfulness–Hope–Joy–Love
  • Prophets–Angels–Shepherds–Magi
  • Faith–Prepare–Joy–Love

Other interesting posts related to Christmas are:

Why the Magi Brought Frankincense and Myrrh

Little Known Christmas Fun Facts

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References

The History of Advent – The Aquila Report by Ryan Reeves

Advent – Wikipedia

The History and Practice of Advent by Michelle Rabon (ibelieve.com)

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