The church year in the West begins with with a preparatory season called “Advent.” The word “advent” comes from the Latin word adventus, meaning “appearing” or “coming,” referring to the appearing of a great king or even a god. In Christian usage, it refers to the appearing of Jesus Christ in two ways - His first appearing as the Child born of the Virgin Mary and His second appearing in glory on the Last Day to judge the living and the dead. You see, Advent isn’t only about getting ready for Christmas; it’s also about getting ready for Jesus’ final appearing in glory only the Last Day.
We live in the last days, between Christ’s first and second appearances. He is always present with us, and always has been since the beginning. His presence is made audible and visible to us by the Spirit through the preached Word and the Sacraments. Only briefly did the Son of God show His face some 2000 years ago. Only at the end will we see His face again when He appears in glory. Until then, we watch and wait for His second advent even as we celebrate His first.
St. Bernard wrote this concerning the coming of Christ: “In the first coming, Christ comes in the flesh and in weakness; in the second, He comes in Spirit and power; in the third, He comes in glory and majesty; and the second coming is the means whereby we pass from the first to the third.”
The season of Advent has its origins in France and Spain in the 4th and 5th centuries. As early as 380, the Council of Saragossa urged faithful Christians to attend church every day from December 17 through Epiphany (January 6). Early calendars in both the East and the West indicated a 40 day period of fasting, beginning on November 14. The liturgical principle is “fast before feast,” following the pattern of Lent and Easter. Before a major feast there is a period of fasting - solemn, repentant preparation. This stands in sharp contrast to our consumerist culture that feasts first and then diets afterward, resolving to “do better” in the new year. Joyful feasting and disciplined fasting go hand in hand.
Advent has four distinct Sundays themed by the readings from the holy Gospel:
The 1st Sunday in Advent focuses on Christ’s appearing in glory with the image of His triumphal ride into Jerusalem as the messianic King.
The 2nd Sunday brings John the Baptizer’s prophetic voice calling Israel out to the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord.”
The 3rd Sunday again focuses on John the Baptizer, this time on the content of his preaching of repentance and his greatness as the forerunner of the Messiah.
The 4th Sunday emphasizes Jesus’ immaculate conception by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary. During the final week of Advent, it is customary to pray the “O Antiphons” from December 17 to December 23, a series of ancient prayers addressed to Christ in terms of Old Testament prophesy.
Advent is a season of quiet anticipation and expectation. The One who once came in humility by way of Bethlehem’s manger, David’s donkey, and Calvary’s cross, who now comes to us hiddenly in His holy Word and the blessed Sacrament of His body and blood, will soon come visibly in blazing glory to raise the dead and give eternal life to all who call on His Name. The tone of Advent is joyful anticipation, a mixture of holy fear and expectant joy, like that of a mother-to-be awaiting the arrival of her first baby.
Advent is a time of sober patience. Sadly, our instant gratification culture seems to have had more influence on the Church than the Church has had on the surrounding culture. Advent has been gobbled up by the frenzy of the “winter holidays,” which now begin after Halloween! By the time Christmas arrives, most are too weary to worship and too burned out from decking the halls to celebrate the birth of the world’s Savior with any degree of joy much less energy. Remember, Christmas is a twelve day feast, beginning on December 25th. In celebrating Advent in all its somber, sober watchfulness, we Christians can give a priceless gift to each other and to the world by showing the patient hope we have in Jesus’ coming.
The season has its own peculiar customs and traditions. One cherished tradition is the Advent wreath. This evergreen wreath with four candles is a tradition from northern Europe. Each candle stands for one of the four Sundays in Advent. The closed circle is a symbol of God’s eternality. Like the circle, our Lord is without beginning and without end. The evergreen branches represent the eternal life that is ours through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a life that transcends death itself. Just as the evergreen remains alive and fresh even in the dead of winter, so Jesus fills us with new life even in death. “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in me will live even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
The candles remind us of Jesus Christ, who is the Light of the world, the Light no darkness can overcome. They also represent all baptized believers in Jesus who reflect His light into the darkness of this world and proclaim Him who called them out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9-10). Each successive week in Advent, another candle is lit. Sometimes smaller candles or little red berries are added to count off the days between Sundays. At Christmas Eve, the Advent wreath is replaced with a single white Christ candle, signifying the appearing of Christ in the world.
As the candles on the Advent wreath burn ever more brightly with the approach of Christmas, we are reminded of how near is the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ. Good news indeed! He comes to judge the world in His righteousness, and the verdict will be “innocent” in His atoning death. Your faith in Him will not be in vain. He comes to save!
Other Advent customs include the Advent calendar with its little doors or pockets each concealing a gift or Scripture verse and counting the days to Christmas, and the “Jesse Tree,” depicting the family tree of Jesus as the promised Branch from the stem of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1). Advent calendars and Jesse Trees make fun family projects during the season of Advent.
The intent of Advent is not to “take the fun” out of Christmas but to restore the joy and celebration to Christmas by having a period of prayerful preparation and to put the holy back into the December "holidays." As we celebrate Christ’s first coming by way of the Virgin and the manger, and as we delight in His sacramental coming to us in the Word and Supper, we await His coming in glory at a day and an hour no one knows.
E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come
And night shall be no more
They need no light, no lamp, nor sun
For Christ will be their All!