Advent

This is a Christian season of preparation for the Nativity of Christ at Christmas. It is the beginning of the liturgical year, also called the church year or Christian, consisting of the cycle of liturgical seasons in Christian churches in Western Christianity that determines when feast days, including celebrations of saints, are to be observed, and which portions of Scripture are to be read either in an annual cycle or in a cycle of several years. The name ‘Advent’ was adopted from Latin ‘adventus’, or ‘coming, arrival’, translating from the Greek ‘parousia’. In the New Testament, this is the term used for the second coming of Christ. Thus, the season of Advent in the Christian calendar anticipates the ‘coming of Christ’ from three different perspectives, these being the physical nativity in Bethlehem, the reception of Christ in the heart of the believer, and the eschatological Second Coming. Practices associated with Advent include Advent calendars, lighting an Advent wreath, praying an Advent or daily devotional, erecting a Christmas tree, lighting a Christingle as well as other ways of preparing for Christmas, such as setting up Christmas decorations, a custom that is sometimes done liturgically through a ‘hanging of the greens’ ceremony. The equivalent of Advent in Eastern Christianity is called the Nativity Fast, but it differs in length and observances, and does not begin the liturgical church year as it does in the West. The Eastern Nativity Fast does not use the equivalent ‘parousia’ in its preparatory services. In the Western Rite of the Orthodox Church and in the Anglican, Lutheran, Moravian, Presbyterian, and Methodist calendars, Advent commences on the fourth Sunday before Christmas (always falling between 27 November and 3 December), and ends on Christmas Eve, on 24 December. In the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, Advent begins with First Vespers (Evening Prayer I) of the Sunday that falls on or closest to November 30 and it ends before First Vespers (Evening Prayer I) of Christmas. In the Ambrosian Rite and the Mozarabic Rite of the Catholic Church, Advent begins on the sixth Sunday before Christmas, the Sunday after St. Martin’s Day,11 November. I may look more into these different ‘Rites’ at a later date. It is not known when the period of preparation for Christmas that is now called Advent began. It was certainly in existence from about 480AD and the novelty introduced by the Council of Tours of 567 was to order monks to fast every day in the month of December until Christmas. It is impossible to claim with confidence a credible explanation of the origin of Advent.

Representation of Saint Perpetuus.

Associated with Advent as a time of penitence was a period of fasting, known also as St Martin’s Lent or the Nativity Fast. According to Saint Gregory of Tours, the celebration of Advent began in the fifth century when the Bishop Perpetuus directed that “starting with the St. Martin’s Day on 11 November until Christmas, one fasts three times per week”. So that is why Advent was sometimes also named ‘Lent of St. Martin’. But this practice remained limited to the diocese of Tours until the sixth century. Then the Council of Macon, held in 581, adopted the practice in Tours and soon all France observed three days of fasting a week from the feast of Saint Martin until Christmas. The most devout worshipers in some countries exceeded the requirements adopted by the council, and fasted every day of Advent. The first clear references in the Western Church to Advent occur in the Gelasian Sacramentary, which provides Advent Collects, Epistles, and Gospels for the five Sundays preceding Christmas and for the corresponding Wednesdays and Fridays. The homilies of Gregory the Great in the late sixth century showed four weeks to the liturgical season of Advent, but without the observance of a fast. However, under Charlemagne in the ninth century, writings claim that the fast was still widely observed.
In the thirteenth century, the fast of Advent was not commonly practiced although, according to Durand of Mende, fasting was still generally observed. As quoted in the bull of canonisation of St. Louis, the zeal with which he observed this fast was no longer a custom observed by Christians of great piety. It was then limited to the period from the feast of Saint Andrew until Christmas Day, since the solemnity of this apostle was more universal than that of St. Martin. When Pope Urban V ascended the papal seat in 1362, he imposed abstinence on the papal court but there was no mention of fasting. It was then customary in Rome to observe five weeks of Advent before Christmas. The Ambrosian Rite has six. The Greeks show no more real consistency, Advent was an optional fast that some begin on 15 November, whilst others begin on 6 December or only a few days before Christmas. The liturgy of Advent remained unchanged until the Second Vatican Council, the 21st ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church. The council met in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome for four periods (or sessions), each lasting between 8 and 12 weeks, in the autumn of each of the four years 1962 to 1965. Preparation for the council took three years, from the summer of 1959 to the autumn of 1962. The council was opened on 11 October 1962 by John XXIII (pope during the preparation and the first session), and was closed on 8 December 1965 by Paul VI (pope during the last three sessions, after the death of John XXIII on 3 June 1963). Pope John XXIII called the council because he felt the Church needed ‘updating’. In order to connect with 20th-century people in an increasingly secularised world, some of the Church’s practices needed to be improved, and its teaching needed to be presented in a way that would appear relevant and understandable to them. Many Council participants were sympathetic to this, whilst others saw little need for change and resisted efforts in that direction. But support for change won out over resistance and as a result the sixteen magisterial documents produced by the council proposed significant developments in doctrine and practice, these being an extensive reform of the liturgy, a renewed theology of the Church, of revelation and of the laity, a new approach to relations between the Church and the world, to ecumenism, to non-Christian religions and to religious freedom. This liturgy also introduced minor changes differentiating the spirit of Lent from that of Advent, emphasising Advent as a season of hope for Christ’s coming now as a promise of his Second Coming. The theme of readings and teachings during Advent is often seen as the preparation for the Second Coming and the Last Judgement. Whilst the Sunday readings relate to the first coming of Jesus Christ as saviour as well as to his Second Coming as judge, traditions vary in the relative importance of penitence and expectation during the weeks in Advent.

Medieval manuscript of Gregorian chant setting of ‘Rorate Coeli’.

Since approximately the 13th century, the usual liturgical colour in Western Christianity for Advent has been violet. Pope Innocent III declared black to be the proper colour for Advent, though Durandus of Saint-Pourçain claims violet has preference over black. The violet or purple colour is often used for antependia, the vestments of the clergy, and often also the tabernacle. On the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, rose may be used instead, referencing the rose used on Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent. A rose coloured candle in Western Christianity is referenced as a sign of joy (Gaudete) lit on the third Sunday of Advent. Whilst the traditional colour for Advent is violet, there is a growing interest in and acceptance, by some Christian denominations of blue as an alternative liturgical colour for Advent, a custom traced to the usage of the Church of Sweden (Lutheran) and the Mozarabic Rite, which dates from the 8th century. The Lutheran Book of Worship lists blue as the preferred colour for Advent whilst the Methodist Book of Worship and the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship identify purple or blue as appropriate for Advent. Proponents of this new liturgical trend argue that purple is traditionally associated with solemnity and sombreness, which is fitting to the repentant character of Lent. There has been an increasing trend in Protestant churches to supplant purple with blue during Advent as it is a hopeful season of preparation that anticipates both Bethlehem and the consummation of history in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. This colour is often called ‘Sarum blue’, referring to its purported use at Salisbury Cathedral. Many of the ornaments and ceremonial practices associated with the Sarum rite were revived in the Anglican Communion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as part of the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement in the Church of England. However the Roman Catholic Church retains the traditional violet. Blue is not generally used in Latin Catholicism and where it does regionally, it has nothing to do with Advent specifically, but with veneration of the Blessed Virgin. However, on some occasions that are heavily associated with Advent, such as the Rorate Mass – but not on Sundays, when white is used. During the Nativity Fast, red is used by Eastern Christianity, although gold is an alternative colour.

Lighting the Advent Candle.

Many churches also hold special musical events, such as Nine Lessons and Carols and singing of Handel’s Messiah oratorio. Also, the Advent Prose, an antiphonal plainsong may be sung. The ‘Late Advent Weekdays’, 17th to 24th December, mark the singing of the Great Advent ‘O antiphons‘. These are the daily antiphons for the Magnificat at Vespers, or Evening Prayer (in the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches) and Evensong in Anglican churches, marking the forthcoming birth of the Messiah. They form the basis for each verse of the popular Advent hymn, “O come, O come, Emmanuel“. I have also found that Bishop Perpetuus of Tours, who died in 490, ordered fasting three days a week from the day after Saint Martin’s Day (11 November). In the 6th century, local councils enjoined fasting on all days except Saturdays and Sundays from Saint Martin’s Day to Epiphany (the feast of baptism), a period of 56 days, but of 40 days fasting, like the fast of Lent. It was therefore called ‘Quadragesima Sancti Martini’ (Saint Martin’s Lent). This period of fasting was later shortened and simply called ‘Advent’ by the Church. In the Anglican and Lutheran churches this fasting rule was later relaxed. The Roman Catholic Church later abolished the precept of fasting (at an unknown date, at the latest in 1917), but kept Advent as a season of penitence. In addition to fasting, dancing and similar festivities were forbidden in these traditions. On ‘Refreshment’ Sunday, also known as Rose Sunday, relaxation of the fast was permitted. Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches still hold the tradition of fasting for 40 days before Christmas. In England, especially in the northern counties, there was a custom (now extinct) for poor women to carry around the ‘Advent images’, two dolls dressed to represent Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary. A halfpenny coin was expected from every one to whom these were exhibited and bad luck was thought to menace the household not visited by the doll-bearers before Christmas Eve at the latest. The keeping of an Advent wreath is a common practice in homes or churches. The concept of the Advent wreath originated among German Lutherans in the 16th Century, however, it was not until three centuries later that the modern Advent wreath took shape. The modern Advent wreath, with its candles representing the Sundays of Advent, originated from an 1839 initiative by Johann Hinrich Wichern, a Protestant pastor in Germany and a pioneer in urban mission work among the poor. In view of the impatience of the children he taught as they awaited Christmas, he made a ring of wood, with nineteen small red tapers and four large white candles. Every morning a small candle was lit, and every Sunday a large candle. Custom has retained only the large candles. In the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, the readings of Mass on the Sundays of Advent have distinct themes. On the First Sunday (Advent Sunday), they look forward to the Second Coming of Christ. On the Second Sunday, the Gospel reading recalls the preaching of John the Baptist, who came to “prepare the way of the Lord”, with the other readings having associated themes. On the Third Sunday (Gaudete Sunday), the Gospel reading is again about John the Baptist, the other readings about the joy associated with the coming of the Saviour. On the Fourth Sunday, the Gospel reading is about the events involving Mary and Joseph that led directly to the birth of Jesus, whilst the other readings are related to these. However, in another tradition the readings for the first Sunday in Advent relate to the Old Testament patriarchs who were Christ’s ancestors, so some call the first Advent candle that of hope. Here the readings for the second Sunday concern Christ’s birth in a manger and other prophecies, so the candle may be called that of Bethlehem, the way, or of the prophets. Then the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, after the first word of the introit (Philippians 4:4), is celebrated with rose-coloured vestments similar to Laetare Sunday at the middle point of Lent. The readings relate to John the Baptist and the rose candle may be called that of joy or of the shepherds. The collect “Stir up” (the first words of the collect) may be read during this week, although before the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer it was sometimes read in the first Sunday of Advent. Even earlier, ‘Stir-up Sunday’ was once jocularly associated with the stirring of the Christmas mincemeat, begun before Advent. The phrase “stir up” occurs at the start of the collect for the last Sunday before Advent in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Then the readings for the fourth Sunday relate to the annunciation of Christ’s birth, so the candle may be known as the Angel’s candle. The Magnificat or Song of Mary may be featured. Where an Advent wreath includes a fifth candle, it is known as the Christ candle and is lit during the Christmas Eve service.

This week… candles

“A candle is symbolic to the Sun in many ways. The light it provides to others by bearing the consistent heat and sacrificing itself delivers a message that a true selfless being lives for the benefit of others.”

Click: Return to top of page or Index page

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: