From the Latin adventus, meaning coming; the season immediately before Christmas, beginning on the Sunday nearest the feast of St. Andrew (November 30) and lasting for four weeks. In about the 9th century the First Sunday of Advent became the beginning of the Church year.
Meaning. Because Advent is so closely related to Christmas it can scarcely be understood apart from that feast. It was not until the birth of Christ was celebrated throughout the Church that Advent came into existence at all. Its name is derived from the ancient name for the feast, for Adventus, Epiphania and Natale are all synonymous first for the Incarnation itself, then for the feast that commemorates and celebrates the Incarnation. Christmas, as well as Epiphany, is not only the commemoration of the birth of Christ as a historical event, it is also and much more the celebration of the coming of God in the flesh as a saving event. The very celebration itself is a saving event that brings about the coming of Christ among humanity and anticipates his return in glory.
The term Advent gradually came to designate the time before Christmas. The ancient Introit for the Epiphany begins with the words "Ecce advenit Dominator Dominus" (Behold the Lord the Ruler is come.) Advent is a comprehensive name for the Incarnation and all that the Incarnation accomplishes.
History. The remote origin of Advent is to be found in the Gallican custom of having a time of preparation for the Feast of the Epiphany, which was a baptismal feast in that part of the West and consequently had its season of preparation for Baptism similar to Lent. This took the form of a period of fasting and prayer that at first lasted three weeks but in time was lengthened to 40 days similar to Lent. It came to be known as St. Martin's Lent because it began on that saint's feast, November 11. This early Advent was an ascetical rather than a liturgical season.
In 380 the Council of Saragossa ordered that there be a three-week fast before the Epiphany, beginning on December 17. About 100 years later the diocese of Tours kept a fast three times a week beginning with St. Martin's Day, a custom that the Council of Mâcon (581) extended to all the dioceses of France. During the next two centuries the practice found its way to England.
At Rome Epiphany had never been a baptismal feast, so the same reason for having a "Lent" preceding it did not exist. When Advent first appeared at Rome it was a preparation for Christmas and not the Epiphany, and it was a liturgical season rather than an ascetical period. There was no Advent at Rome until the second half of the 6th century. The Gelasian Sacramentary (6th century) was the first to provide an Advent liturgy, possibly originating not at Rome but in Ravenna in the 5th century.
Gregory I the Great (d. 604) shortened the season from six weeks to four, composed liturgical texts, and arranged the Lectionary for the Mass and the Office. When the Roman rite was introduced into Gaul in the 9th century, it was enriched there with Gallican prayers and rites. Rome adopted the fast and penitential spirit of the Gallican Advent, along with its emphasis on the second coming of Christ. This fusion of the Roman and Gallican Advents found its way back to Rome in the 10th century.
Liturgy. Advent has a twofold character: as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ's first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ's Second Coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation. (General Norms of the Liturgical Year and Calendar [GNLYC], no. 39) While the period up to December 16 more strongly focuses on Christ's return in glory, December 17 to 24 serve more immediately as a preparation for the feast of the incarnation. Throughout, the liturgy celebrates Christ's continual presence in the World (cf. Wednesday of the First Week of Advent, Office of Readings). The first reading for the Sundays of Advent in all three years presents the main messianic prophecies. The gospel reading for the first Sunday exhorts Christians to watch and be ready; the second and third Sundays highlight the figure and message of John the Baptist; and the fourth Sunday of Advent tells of the annunciation to Mary (year A), the annunciation to Joseph (year B), and the Visitation (year C.)
A characteristic feature of the Advent liturgy for December 17 to 23 are the traditional "O" antiphons. Originally found as the antiphon preceding the Canticle of Mary in Evening Prayer, these are popularly known through the hymn, "O Come O Come Emmanuel."
The domestic custom of the wreath has been taken into the liturgy of Advent in many places in North America. The Book of Blessings, nos. 1510 to 1513, provides an order for blessing the Advent wreath the first Sunday of Advent, and provides for the silent lighting of the candles on successive Sundays. It indicates that four white candles or three purple and one rose candle may be used. The first purple candle is lit on the first Sunday of Advent, the second purple candle on the second, the rose candle on the third Sunday traditionally known as "Gaudete" ("Rejoice") Sunday, and the fourth purple candle on the fourth Sunday of Advent. A white candle may be lit on Christmas Eve.
The use of rose is a remnant of Medieval practice when Advent was strongly penitential in character. The change of color on Gaudete Sunday marked a lessening of the penitential practices in expectation of Christmas joy. The use of all white candles is suggested by the renewal of the whole period of Advent as "one of devout and joyful expectation" (GNLYC, no. 39).
Theology. Advent is a liturgical season, a mystery in the ancient sense of the word, a present reality that contains and mediates salvation. It deepens and strengthens the awareness of Christ's presence in his Church and in its members. Advent is at once a celebration of his first coming and his presence in the midst of his Church, and an anticipation of his full and final coming when he will complete the work of the redemption. The word Advent must therefore be taken in the fullest sense: past, present and future. The Church not only prepares to welcome him at Christmas time or to greet him in the hour of his final triumph; it rejoices even now in the presence of its Lord in its midst. All through the year Christians are summoned to prepare the way of the Lord who will come again by living the mystery of Christ in the present.
Bibliography: a. g. martimort, The Church at Prayer IV: The Liturgy and Time (Collegeville 1986). j. n. alexander, Waiting for the Coming (Washington 1993). f. x. weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (New York 1958).
[w. j. o'shea/
s. k. roll]
Regarded as the beginning of each new cycle in the Christian liturgical year, Advent usually occurs during the four Sundays preceding Christmas Day. Taken from the Latin adventus, which means "coming," the season has always been utilized as a time of preparation for the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ. Eastern Orthodox churches begin Advent after St. Martin's Day (November 11) and observe a season of approximately six weeks. Most others, including Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions, inaugurate Advent on the Sunday nearest St. Andrew's Day (November 30) and continue activities until Christmas Eve.
References to Advent in early Christianity describe it as a period of ascetical and penitential preparation for one's baptism, a ritual often culminating at Epiphany on January 6. It first became widespread in Spain during the fourth century and then in Gaul a century thereafter. By the sixth century the season had been sanctioned for use in Rome, where Bishop Gregory I associated Advent with the Incarnation and with the Second Coming as well as with baptism. By the ninth century, Roman influence had caused Advent to be recognized as the beginning of the ecclesiastical year everywhere in Western Europe.
Advent is full of theological meanings that overlap and reinforce each other. Connected with baptism, it reminds the faithful of the coming of Christ in human souls and urges participants to make themselves worthy of such divine indwelling. As preparation for Christmas, it heightens the worshiper's anticipation of not only historical events surrounding physical birth but more generally of God's coming into the world in the flesh as a redemptive event. Advent thus points to Incarnation and Nativity as glory. A great number of American churches in contemporary times still perceive Advent as containing three segments of the salvation process: Christ's first appearance on earth in human form, a renewed sense of his abiding presence in each believer's soul, and his eventual return in triumph to judge the world and redeem his people.
In early times the four weeks of Advent were marked by an atmosphere of penitence and severe soul-searching. This was gradually modified into somber yet joyful expectation of Christ's tripartite presence.
In contemporary America Advent continues to be a time of penance for some, but fasting is no longer required, and most observers embody a sense of joyful expectancy as the new liturgical year begins to unfold once again the drama of salvation. As part of this, many people use Advent calendars in their homes, opening paper panels each day of the season to reveal sacred or decorative images. Evergreen wreaths are popular items, too, in both homes and churches, where four candles are set among the greenery, one for each Sunday of the period. Customs vary, but one traditional usage is that the first three candles are dark blue while the fourth (signifying Mary, the mother of Jesus) is either pink or purple. Once the circle of lighted candles is complete, a central one of white or red is featured to signify the coming of Christ into the world.
Cowley, Patrick. Advent. 1960.
MacArthur, A. C. Evolution of the Christian Year. 1953.
Henry Warner Bowden
Advent calendar a calendar containing small numbered flaps, one of which is opened on each day of Advent to reveal a picture appropriate to the season.
Advent candle a candle lit during Advent; especially each candle in a ring of four, lit on successive Sundays in Advent to symbolize the coming of light into the world at Christmas (when a fifth central candle completes the group).
Advent Sunday the first Sunday in Advent; in the Western Church the Sunday closest to St Andrew's Day (30 November). In the Orthodox Church Advent Sunday falls in the middle of November.
ad·vent / ˈadˌvent/ • n. [in sing.] the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event. ∎ (Advent) the first season of the church year, leading up to Christmas and including the four preceding Sundays. ∎ (Advent) Christian Theol. the coming or second coming of Christ.