Advent, the season of the church year that leads up to Christmas, begins this year on December 3. What is Advent? Glad you asked!
What is Advent?
The word ‘Advent’ is from the Latin ‘Adventus,’ which means ‘coming.’ Advent is the beginning of a new liturgical year (in the Western churches), and encompasses the span of time from the fourth Sunday before Christmas, until the Nativity of Our Lord is celebrated. The first Sunday of Advent will always fall somewhere between November 27th at the earliest and December 3rd at the latest. The liturgical color for this season is a deep purple.
Like Lent, Advent is a preparatory season. It has significance because it is a season of looking forward and waiting for something greater; both for the annual celebration of the event of Christ’s birth, and for the time when Christ will come again.
During Advent, the faithful are asked to prepare themselves worthily to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord’s coming into the world as the incarnate God of love, to make their souls fitting abodes for the Redeemer coming in Holy communion and through grace, and to make themselves ready for His final coming as judge, at death and at the end of the world.
Origin and History of Advent
The exact time when the season of Advent came to be celebrated is not precisely known. Of course, it was not in practice before the celebration of the Nativity and Christmastide began; the earliest evidence shows that the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord was established within the later part of the 4th century. There are homilies from the 5th century that discuss preparation in a general sense, but do not indicate an official liturgical season. A Synod held in 590 established that Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from November 11th until the Nativity would be offered according to the Lenten rite. This and other traditions, such as fasting, show that the period of time now established as the Advent season was more penitential (similar to Lent) than the liturgical season as we know it today.
The themes and traditions of the Advent season have evolved throughout the history of the liturgical season. As mentioned, the early Advent season was mainly penitential, close to the theme of the Lenten season. Today a penitential theme still exists, but it is not as intense as in 7th century. Also, it is blended with the theme of prayerful, spiritual preparation for the second and final coming of the Lord, as well as the joyful preparation for the annual festive remembrance of the Incarnation and Christ’s birth.
Advent celebration and traditions can vary from place to place, influenced by culture. However, some traditions have come to be common throughout the Church.
The Advent wreath is likely the most popular tradition, and wreaths are typically present in both the church and in the home. It is a more recent tradition, with the modern Advent wreath emerging in Germany and spreading throughout Europe and beyond in the 1930’s. It is often circular, representing God’s eternity, and it includes 4 candles – one for each Sunday of Advent. Many families have a wreath in the home, and will light the candles each Sunday.
Advent calendars are another popular tradition, although they most often follow the calendar month of December, not the four Sundays which can begin in November.