A History of Advent

This post originally appeared in the parish bulletin on Dec. 2, 2012

Advent is my favorite season of the liturgical year. Today begins this holy time that is so hard to keep well when all around us advertising, the streetscape, and even the sounds around us are proclaiming that Christmas has arrived. Tinkling music and Christmas decorations greet shoppers, and “holiday” music emanates from radios as entire stations switch to an all-Christmas music format even before Thanksgiving. As I flipped through the newspaper the other day, I noticed that an article in the business section made a passing reference to the holiday shopping season being the entire two-month period of November and December! I suppose that is accurate when it comes to sales. Businesses find it very important to tell us it is already Christmas, so we have a challenge ahead of us if we intend to allow Advent to be Advent.

It might be interesting to note that Advent is a young liturgical season compared to Lent, for example. It simply came along more recently. Now, by “recent” I mean 1,500 years old; the Catholic Church has been around for a long time. The season came into being only gradually. Read on to understand what research in to the liturgical history of the prayers used during Advent has discovered:

 The history of Advent in Rome begins in the sixth century, but Advent had already existed in Gaul and Spain. By the end of the fourth century and during the fifth, the people of those regions seemed to have felt the need for an ascetical preparation for the feasts of Christmas and Epiphany. This preparation, lasting three weeks, was doubtless connected originally with the preparation for baptism on Epiphany. … Asceticism, prayer, more frequent assemblies: these are the original characteristics of the time of preparation for Christmas. … Advent makes its appearance in Rome only in the second half of the sixth century …. It is important to note that at Rome Advent was from the outset a liturgical institution, whereas everywhere else ascetical considerations had served as the point of departure and provided the criteria for the evolution of the season. …

In keeping with the original conception of it among the Gauls, the season was first of all a time of preparation for the solemnity of the coming of the Lord … But, as the feast of Christmas became increasingly important in the High Middle Ages, Advent also came to be a time of expectation: it fostered a joyful expectation of the feast of the Nativity but with a view to directing the thoughts of Christians above all to the glorious return of the Lord at the end of time” (A.G. Martimort, The Church at Prayer, volume IV: The Liturgy and Time [Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1986], pp. 91-93).

In other words, the idea of Advent came from a desire to help adults who were preparing to be baptized on the Epiphany, so the time before Christmas was not so different from Lent. In the 300s in the region that became France and Spain, Advent was a time of penitence and ascetic practices such as fasting and abstaining from eating meat. When Advent was accepted in Rome in the late 500s, it didn’t have much of an emphasis on those ascetical practices, but even today the origins of Advent live on in the custom of going to confession before Christmas and in the violet color of the vestments worn during Advent – the color of penitence. After the year 1000, the season we have just begun took on its present characteristics: it’s a time to prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and also a time to focus on Jesus’ return in glory on the last day.

The interesting thing about Advent and its two emphases is that early in the season we are invited to think of the end times, and then late in Advent (from December 17 to 24) we are invited to contemplate the human origins of Jesus, ending with the wonderful celebration of his birth. This is reflected in the beautiful prayer called the Preface that in used in the part of Advent that comes before December 17. The Preface comes at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer and includes these words:

For he assumed at his first coming

the lowliness of human flesh,

and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago,

and opened for us the way to eternal salvation,

that, when he comes again in glory and majesty

and all is at last made manifest,

we who watch for that day

may inherit the great promise

in which now we dare to hope.

Why not spend this part of this season of preparation “daring to hope” in the promise God has made to us? We can do it by carving out a place of silence and quiet prayer in a hectic time. We can do that in the time-honored customs of using the Advent wreath and Advent calendar at home, especially in a time of family prayer with the children. I hope you have a wonderful Advent!

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