Advent is a season observed in many Christian churches as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas as well as the return of Jesus at the second coming. The term is a version of the Latin word meaning “coming”. The term “Advent” is also used in Eastern Orthodoxy for the 40-day Nativity Fast, which has practices different from those in the West.
Latin adventus is the translation of the Greek word parousia, commonly used to refer to the Second Coming of Christ. For Christians, the season of Advent anticipates the coming of Christ from three different perspectives. “Since the time of Bernard of Clairvaux (d.1153) Christians have spoken of the three comings of Christ: in the flesh in Bethlehem, in our hearts daily, and in glory at the end of time.” The season offers the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, and to be alert for his Second Coming.
Advent is the beginning of the Western liturgical year and commences on the fourth Sunday before Christmas (sometimes known as Advent Sunday), the Sunday nearest to St. Andrew’s Day (30 November), in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, the Western Rite of the Orthodox Church, and in the Anglican, Lutheran, Moravian, Presbyterian, and Methodist calendars. 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).
Practices associated with Advent include keeping an Advent calendar, lighting an Advent wreath, praying an Advent daily devotional, 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.
The equivalent of Advent in Eastern Christianity is called the Nativity Fast, but it differs in length and observances, and does not begin the liturgical church year as it does in the West. The Eastern Nativity Fast does not use the equivalent parousia in its preparatory services.
It is unknown when the period of preparation for Christmas that is now called Advent first began – it was certainly in existence from about 480 – and the novelty introduced by the Council of Tours of 567 was to order monks to fast every day in the month of December until Christmas. Some have even said it goes back to the time of the Twelve Apostles or that it was founded by Saint Peter. This has led to the conclusion that it is “impossible to claim with confidence a credible explanation of the origin of Advent”.
Associated with Advent was a period of fasting, known also as the Nativity Fast or the Fast of December.
According to some sources, the celebration of Advent began in the fifth century when the Bishop Perpetuus directed that starting with the feast of St. Martin, 11 November, until Christmas, one fasts three times per week; this is why Advent is also named Lent of St. Martin. According to historians, this practice remained limited to the diocese of Tours until the sixth century.
But the Macon council 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 of Macon, and fasted every day of Advent. The homilies of Gregory the Great in the late sixth century showed 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.
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 limited to the period from Saint Andrew 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. Ambrosiana or Milan Liturgies have six. The Greeks show no more real consistency; Advent was an optional fasting that some begin on 15 November, while others begin on 6 December or only a few days before Christmas.
The Catholic Church, for centuries, has begun the season of Advent on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and neither fast nor abstinence are observed. No canonical penalty has ever been attached to the neglect of the practices of Advent. The Church has at times declined to administer the sacrament of matrimony during Advent, because of the joy connected with the celebration.
The liturgy of Advent remained unchanged until the Second Vatican Council, in 1963, introduced minor changes, differentiating the spirit of Lent from that of Advent, emphasizing Advent as a season of hope for Christ’s coming now as a promise of his Second Coming.
The theme of readings and teachings during Advent is often the preparation for the Second Coming, while also commemorating the First Coming of Christ at Christmas. The first clear references in the Western Church to Advent occur in the Gelasian Sacramentary, which provides Advent Collects, Epistles, and Gospels for the five Sundays preceding Christmas and for the corresponding Wednesdays and Fridays. While the Sunday readings relate to the first coming of Jesus Christ as savior as well as to his second coming as judge, traditions vary in the relative importance of penitence and expectation during the weeks in Advent.
Since approximately the 13th century, the usual liturgical color in Western Christianity for Advent has been violet; Pope Innocent III declared black to be the proper color for Advent, though Durandus of Saint-Pourçain claims violet has preference over black. The violet or purple color is often used for hangings around the church, the vestments of the clergy, and often also the tabernacle. In some Christian denominations, blue, a color representing hope, is an alternative liturgical color for Advent, a custom traced to the usage of the Church of Sweden (Lutheran) and the medieval Sarum Rite in England. In addition, the color blue is also used in the Mozarabic Rite (Catholic and Anglican), which dates from the 8th century. This color is often referred to as “Sarum blue”.
The Lutheran Book of Worship lists blue as the preferred color for Advent while the Methodist Book of Worship and the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship identify purple or blue as appropriate for Advent. There has been an increasing trend in Protestant churches to supplant purple with blue during Advent as it is a hopeful season of preparation that anticipates both Bethlehem and the consummation of history in the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Proponents of this new liturgical trend argue that purple is traditionally associated with solemnity and somberness, which is fitting to the repentant character of Lent. The Roman Catholic Church retains the traditional violet. Blue is not generally used in Latin Catholicism, and where it does regionally, it has nothing to do with Advent specifically, but with veneration of the Blessed Virgin. However, on some occasions that are heavily associated with Advent, such as the Rorate Mass (but not on Sundays), white is used.
On the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, rose may be used instead, referencing the rose used on Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent. A rose colored candle in Western Christianity is referenced as a sign of joy (Gaudete) lit on the 3rd Sunday of Advent.
During the Nativity Fast, red is used by Eastern Christianity, although gold is an alternative color.
During Advent, the Gloria of the Mass is omitted, so that the return of the angels’ song at Christmas has an effect of novelty. Mass compositions written especially for Lent, such as Michael Haydn’s Missa tempore Quadragesimae, in D minor for choir and organ, have no Gloria and so are appropriate for use in Advent.
Bishop Perpetuus of Tours, who died in 490, ordered fasting three days a week from the day after Saint Martin’s Day (11 November). In the 6th century, local councils enjoined fasting on all days except Saturdays and Sundays from Saint Martin’s Day to Epiphany (the feast of baptism), a period of 56 days, but of 40 days fasting, like the fast of Lent. It was therefore called Quadragesima Sancti Martini (Saint Martin’s Lent). This period of fasting was later shortened and called “Advent” by the Church.
In the Anglican and Lutheran churches this fasting rule was later relaxed. The Roman Catholic Church later abolished the precept of fasting (at an unknown date at the latest in 1917), later, but kept Advent as a season of penitence. In addition to fasting, dancing and similar festivities were forbidden in these traditions. On Rose Sunday, relaxation of the fast was permitted. Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches still hold the tradition of fasting for 40 days before Christmas.
Inspired by a sixteenth-century German tradition, the Advent wreath was invented in 1839 by Pastor Johann Hinrich Wichern due to the impatience of the children he taught; He then made a crown 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.
The crown is traditionally made of fir tree branches knotted with a red ribbon and decorated with pine cones, holly, laurel, and sometimes mistletoe. It is also an ancient symbol signifying several things; first of all, the crown symbolizes victory, in addition to its round form evoking the sun and its return each year. The number four represents, in addition to the four weeks of Advent, the four seasons and the four cardinal virtues, and the green color is a sign of life and hope. The fir tree is a symbol of strength and laurel a symbol of victory over sin and suffering. The latter two, with the holly, do not lose their leaves, and thus represent the eternity of God. The flames of candles are the representation of the Christmas light approaching and bringing hope and peace, as well as the symbol of the struggle against darkness. For Christians, this crown is also the symbol of Christ the King, the holly recalling the thorns of the Holy Crown resting on the head of Christ. The Advent wreath is traditionally placed on a table with four candles or on the front door of the house as a welcome sign.
The candles also symbolism the great stages of salvation before the coming of the Messiah; the first is the symbol of the forgiveness granted to Adam and Eve, the second is the symbol of the faith of Abraham and of the patriarchs who believe in the gift of the Promised Land, the third is the symbol of the joy of David whose lineage does not stop and also testifies to his covenant with God, and the fourth and last candle is the symbol of the teaching of the prophets who announce a reign of justice and peace. Or they symbolize the four stages of human history; creation, the Incarnation, the redemption of sins, and the Last Judgment. Currently at the Mass of the Catholic Church, the four candles are gradually lit, but the symbolism of these stages is rarely expressed. In the Orthodox churches there are sometimes crowns with six candles, because of the longer duration of Advent.
In Sweden, the candles are white, symbol of festivity and purity, and the crown is reserved for the feast of Saint Lucia on 13 December. In Canada and in much of the United States, the Advent wreath is adorned with three violet candles and a pink candle; The pink candle being lit on the 3rd Sunday, it evokes the joy of the completion of waiting. In Austria, candles are purple, a sign of penance.
The keeping of an advent wreath is also a common practice in homes or churches. The readings for the first Sunday in Advent relate to the old testament patriarchs who were Christ’s ancestors, so some call the first advent candle that of hope. The readings for the second Sunday concern Christ’s birth in a manger and other prophecies, so the candle may be called of Bethlehem, the way, or of the prophets (though in Roman Catholicism the readings concern the Baptist). The third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday after the first word of the introit (Philippians 4:4), is celebrated with rose-colored vestments similar to Laetare Sunday at the middle point of Lent. The readings relate to St. John the Baptist, and the rose candle may be called of joy or of the shepherds. In the Episcopal Church USA, the collect stir up may be read during this week, although before the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer it was sometimes read in the first Sunday of Advent. Even earlier, ‘Stir-up Sunday’ was once jocularly associated with the stirring of the Christmas mincemeat, begun before Advent. The phrase ‘stir up’ occurs at the start of the collect for the last Sunday before Advent in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
The readings for the fourth Sunday relate to the annunciation of Christ’s birth, so the candle may be known as the Angel’s candle. The Magnificat or Song of Mary may be featured. Where an advent wreath includes a fifth candle, it is known as the Christ candle and lit during the Christmas Eve service.
Many thanks to the various editors at Wikipedia for their wonderful summary about Advent.