Advent & Christmas
The word advent means “coming” or “arrival” and the season of Advent is focused on the “coming” of Christ as Messiah (Christ or King). Our worship, scripture readings, and prayers not only prepare us spiritually for Christmas (his first coming), but also for his eventual second coming. This is why the Scripture readings during Advent include both Old Testament prophecies predicting the Messiah and New Testament passages concerning Jesus’ second coming as Judge of all people. Also, passages about John the Baptist, the one preparing the way for the Messiah, are read. Since Advent looks forward to Christ’s birth and Incarnation, it is an appropriate way to begin the Church Year.
The liturgical color for Advent is violet (except for the Third Week of Advent, often called Gaudete Sunday, in which rose may be used), and the season is somewhat penitential, similar to Lent, although not so explicit and emphatic. The character of worship during Advent is more solemn, quiet, and less festive than during other times of the year. In the Catholic Church, for example, the Gloria in Excelsis is not used. The use of violet reflects the general themes of Advent: penitence (generally expressed more in terms of expectant hope) and royalty. Some prominent feasts fall within the Season of Advent, including the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Secular culture and many non-Catholic churches celebrate the day of Christmas, but take it outside of the context of Advent and Christmastide. However, Christmas is not meant to be an isolated day, but a festival of the Incarnation in the midst of the Church year. Christmas is only properly understood after having the preparation provided by Advent. In the midst of the secular excesses leading up to Christmas, Advent provides a welcome solace and an opportunity to continually re-orient ourselves to God’s will as we expectantly wait for the true meaning of Christmas: the Incarnation of God the Son.
The first reference to the celebration of Advent occurs in the 6th century. Prior to this time, there were celebrations and fasts resembling our current Advent season. St. Hilary of Poitiers (d. AD 367) and the Spanish Council of Saragossa (AD 380) spoke of a three-week fast before Epiphany. Pope St. Leo the Great preached on “the fast of the tenth month (i.e. December).” The Gelasian Sacramentary (AD 750) provided liturgical material for the five Sundays before Christmas as well as Wednesdays and Fridays. The Western Church eventually settled on 4 Sundays of Advent, which has the season beginning at the very end of November or the very beginning of December, starting immediately after Ordinary Time. Until the 12th century, in many geographical areas, Advent had a more festive tone, and white vestments were still occasionally used. However, Advent became more closely related to Lent as Christ’s second coming became more and more a prominent Advent theme, as especially seen in the seventh century Bobbio Missal. Advent proper is unknown in the East, although the Eastern Churches have a long fast before Christmas. This fast lasts longer than the Western Advent season and begins in mid-November. Advent, or the Eastern equivalent fast, is celebrated in all Catholic and Orthodox Churches.