This past Sunday was the third Sunday in Advent, and so it was that I realized that the time had come for me to stop being lazy and write something about this important time of the year. But how does one even begin to talk about what Advent means without first establishing what Advent is? And so it is that I must first explain to you, dear reader, just what the season of Advent is and how it came to be celebrated by the vast majority of Christians in the world.
The word “Advent” comes from the Latin word “Adventus,” which means “coming.” Thus the period of Advent is a time of remembrance of the coming of the Messiah to Israel. This period of time marks the beginning of a new liturgical year in the Western Tradition (Catholicism and Protestantism), and begins at the fourth Sunday before Christmas and ends on Christmas Day. Traditionally, the first Sunday of Advent falls on the Sunday that is nearest to the feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle, November 30th. All together there are four Sundays between the start of Advent until its end on Christmas. This period gives the Christian time to prepare herself for the Nativity of the Lord by fasting and reflecting upon what the Jews experienced while they awaited the Advent of the Messiah, as well as reflecting upon the Lord’s Second Advent in the future. It is because of this aspect of Advent that makes it similar to Lent, the period of time that the Church prepares itself for Easter.
The exact origins of Advent are a bit uncertain and we do not know exactly when it was first celebrated, but we do know that the season was not celebrated until after the Feast of the Nativity was celebrated. One of the earliest references to the celebration of Christmas on December 25th appeared in Antioch during the second century, back when Christians were still being persecuted by the Romans. It was not until the fourth century, however, during the reign of the Christian emperor Constantine that the Feast of Christmas was officially determined to be celebrated on the 25th. It is also probable that the Church placed the feast during this time in order to help phase out some of the old pagan festivals around the Winter Solstice, but that is a matter for another blog eh? At any rate, there are homilies from the fifth century that speak about preparation in a general sense, but nothing like the modern period of Advent. In the fifth century, Bishop Perpetuus of Tours established a fasting period beginning on November 11th, and in the sixth century, the Council of Tours (567) mentioned an Advent season. The council also established that the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany would be a sacred and festive season (from whence we get the Twelve Days of Christmas!). During the late sixth/early seventh centuries, we find within a collection of homilies, written by St. Gregory the Great, a sermon dedicated to the second Sunday of Advent. And by the year 650 we see that the church in Spain was celebrating five Sundays during the Advent season. This number was later reduced to the current four Sundays by Pope Gregory VII, during the eleventh century.
Fasting was originally a big part of the Advent season, though less so than it was during the Lenten season. The earliest sources for this fast come from the fifth century in Gaul, when St. Perpetuus decreed that a fast would be held three times a week starting at the feast of St. Martin until Christmas. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were to be dedicated to fasting and penance, though of a less strict nature than the Lenten fast. As the centuries went by, this fast was relaxed so that only the clergy were expected to keep it, and the Council of Salisbury seemed to indicate that only the monks were required to keep it. The Greek Church, however, continues to keep the Advent fast to this day. The Orthodox fast forty days, beginning on November 14, the feast of St. Philip the Apostle, where they abstain from meat, butter, eggs, and milk (the rich stuff, basically).
And so Advent is a special time for the Christian religion, because together we look back in time as well as forward, to both of Christ’s Advents. We reflect upon the way in which the Jewish people waited for their Messiah each time we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel!” The Church too cries out for the coming of Emmanuel, for we await the coming of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I would invite you all to help keep the Advent season this year, whether you fast or not, and take some time out of your busy schedule to pause and reflect on what it meant for the Jews to wait for their Messiah to come, and how we should all prepare ourselves for the coming of our King.
. Epiphany is a Christian feast day that celebrates and commemorates the revelation of the Son of God as a human being in Christ. This period usually remembers the Baptism of the Lord Jesus Christ, his first miracle at Cana where he turned the water into wine, and the visitation of the Magi.