Advent: Awaiting a Miracle

Quick Facts

  • Summary: a Christian season of preparation before the celebration of Christmas
  • 2019 Date: 1st – 24th December (Western Christianity), 28th November – 6th January (Eastern Christianity)
  • Celebrated by: Christians, Westerners
  • Linked Holidays: Christmas, Lent, Martinmas (Christianity)

Background and Theological Significance

Advent is a liturgical season of preparation within the Christian Church which is observed in anticipation of the Feast of Christmas. The word ‘Advent’ derives from the Latin ‘adventus’ meaning ‘the coming’, which in itself is derived from the Greek ‘παρουσία’ or ‘parousia’ (arrival or coming). This indicates that Advent is not only a time of preparation for the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth at Christmas, but is also a preparation for the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time. These concepts are strongly linked in Christian theology. One Christian writer has referred to three interwoven comings of Christ: ‘in the flesh in Bethlehem, in our hearts daily, and in glory at the end of time’ (Philip H. Pfatteicher, Journey into the Heart of God, 2003).

Within Western Christianity, Advent is typically observed from the fourth Sunday before Christmas until Christmas Eve. Due to the fixed date of Christmas in the Gregorian calendar the first Sunday of Advent may fall anywhere between 27th November and 3rd December, meaning that the exact length of the Advent season may vary from year to year. In the Western Churches, Advent is seen as the beginning of the Church’s liturgical year.

In Eastern Christianity, the period of fasting in preparation for Christmas is known as the Nativity Fast rather than Advent. The Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches observe the fast for forty days, starting on 15th November and ending on 24th December according to the old Julian calendar. In the Gregorian calendar this corresponds to a period from 28th November to 6th January, with Orthodox Christmas being celebrated on 7th January. The Nativity Fast does not mark the start of the liturgical year within the Eastern Churches, which is usually observed on 1st September.

Due to the historical influence of Christianity over large parts of the Western world, Advent and Christmas are often observed on a cultural level by non-Christians within countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States. This is most prominently seen in practices such as the purchase of Advent calendars and the popular perception that the beginning of December is the start of the Christmas season.

History

The exact origins of Advent are unclear but it seems to date from the time of the early Church. In the fifth-century CE, Bishop Perpetuus of Tours directed that the faithful in his diocese should fast three days a week from Martinmas on 11th November until Christmas Day (hence why Advent has occasionally been known as the Lent of St Martin). This practice soon spread across France and further afield, with some especially devout Christians fasting every day from Martinmas to Christmas. By the Middle Ages, the Advent fast had in many areas turned into a four-week liturgical season that started around the Feast of St Andrew (30th November) and lasted until Christmas Day. The Sunday closest to St Andrew’s Day is always the fourth Sunday before Christmas, which has remained the start of the Advent season in the Western Churches to this day.

Although the concept of a liturgical year was opposed by many Protestants during the Reformation in the sixteenth-century, the pre-Christmas season of Advent is still observed today by the Anglican, Lutheran and many mainline Protestant Churches. These Churches mostly follow the same traditions and dates as the Roman Catholic Church.

What Happens?

In the Western Churches, Advent is perceived as a time of preparation and hope for the coming of Christ; both at Christmas and at the Second Coming. Since at least the thirteenth-century the liturgical colour of Advent has been purple, which is reflected in the colour of vestments and candles during church services. This is one of many similarities between Advent and the pre-Easter season of Lent. The four Sundays of Advent each have special readings, prayers and themes that guide Christians through the period of waiting up until the celebration of Christ’s Nativity. A common feature in Roman Catholic, Anglican and Protestant churches is the presence of an Advent wreath, which is composed of a wreath of evergreen branches set with four candles representing the four Sundays of Advent. The three purple candles are lit on the first, second and fourth Sundays, whilst the single rose candle is lit on the third Sunday (often called Gaudete Sunday). The symbolism of the four candles vary between different Churches but often are thought to represent the Old Testament prophets, St John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. Many wreaths also have a fifth white candle in the centre which symbolises Jesus and is lit on Christmas Day itself. The Advent wreath is likely to have influenced the tradition of hanging evergreen wreaths outside of homes in preparation for Christmas. Other Advent traditions include counting down the days of Advent using an Advent calendar or an Advent candle, and carol services in preparation for Christmastide.

The Eastern Churches also observe the period before Christmas as a season of preparation and waiting, but tend to approach it in a more solemn manner. The Nativity Fast lasts for forty days and is a time for penitence and prayer. Orthodox Christians are supposed to abstain from meat, fish, dairy, wine and oil on all days except for feast days. The Eve of the Nativity is a strict fast day during which no solid foods should be consumed. This is believed to be an appropriate period of fasting to honour the coming of Christ.

Advent is still observed by many individuals and societies which traditionally had a Christian influence, but no longer consider themselves Christian. However, this has an increasingly non-Christian character and tends to be more commercial or material in nature. The most prominent demonstration of this is the practice of having an Advent calendar, which has a small window to be opened during each day between 1st December and 24th December. These will often contain a piece of chocolate or other sweet to be consumed each day of Advent. The celebration of Advent demonstrates how festivals can take on new meanings when societies evolve and adapt.

“My advent wreath” by kicki22 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

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