The word ‘Advent’ comes from the Latin ‘Adventus’ which means ‘coming’. In the Church calendar Advent refers to the coming of Christ and is the ecclesiastical season just before Christmas.
In the West the first day of Advent is the Sunday nearest to St. Andrew’s Day (Nov 30th). Four Sundays in Advent thus always precede Christmas Day. In the East, Advent commences two weeks earlier and is more commonly referred to as the ‘Nativity Fast’. In the West the first day of Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, in the East the liturgical year begins on September 1st
In the East the liturgical preparation is limited to the two Sundays before the Nativity and the five days leading up to the feast. On those two Sundays we are reminded of the Holy Ancestors of God and the Holy Fathers, Patriarchs, and Prophets who played a role in the coming of the Messiah. In the hymns of the Sunday cycle of services, we hear of their great faith and are called to build our own.
Most of us want the days to rush by because we are anxious to get to the feast! Our preparation usually consists of shopping and decorating, not to speak of the endless parties that we are invited to attend. Here is where the notion of waiting comes into play. We must discipline ourselves through self control and patience. We are to read the Scriptures, specifically the prophecies that speak of the coming of the Messiah. We are to turn our focus to a Godly way of life that calls for sacrificing and almsgiving (acts of mercy). Let us think of charity and the giving of our time, talents, and resources to others that may be in need. There is no better way to imitate Christ than to be loving and charitable towards others.
A word to the wise — put Christ back into Christmas. Find the meaning of the feast by understanding the importance of the Son of God taking on human flesh. Remember the real reason for the season is that Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah, came into the world and dwelt among men, taking on Himself the sins of the world so that we might have life in Him.
“God is with us! Understand O nations and submit yourselves, for God is with us!” (Isaiah 8:9)
The first clear references to the season in the West come from the 6th century. The oldest known Roman Sacramentary (liturgical service book) in which feasts are arranged according to the ecclesiastical year is called the Gelasian Sacramentary and it contains Advent collects, Epistles and Gospels for the five Sundays preceding Christmas and for the corresponding Wednesdays and Fridays.
Advent was kept as Lent but with less strictness though festivities were discouraged. The solemn character of the season is marked, in the Western Church by the liturgical use of purple. Rose coloured vestments may be worn on the third Sunday of Advent which is known as Gaudete Sunday. ‘Gaudete’ is the Latin word which means ‘Rejoice’, the words which begin the introit on that Sunday are: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’.
In the Western Rite the Gloria in Excelsis is omitted from the liturgy during Advent and an extra litany is read at the beginning of the liturgy. The Advent wreath is used to help us celebrate the feast of light and life which surrounds the Nativity of the Saviour. We add one light on the wreath for each Sunday in Advent. We think of the darkness after Adam’s sin and watch the growing hope and light as the prophets and the Virgin help us prepare for His saving birth.
In both Eastern and Western traditions the season is observed as a time of expectation, looking forward to the coming of Christ. There is, however, a double theme as we also look forward to the Second Coming of Christ as Judge at the last day. So the season represents both the pre-Christian world awaiting the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem and the Christian world awaiting the return of Christ in glory.
‘Jesus the world’s true light’ is a theme that runs through the whole of Advent. Described below are the themes which are studied over the course of the pre-Christmas season:
- Be ready for Christ’s return by living as He meant us to live so that when He comes we can greet Him with joy.
- Prepare our lives for Christ to build on, a time for repentance and self-examination for greater fruitfulness.
- Joyfulness and rejoicing and an attitude of thankfulness because of the love of God.
- Mary was prepared in perfect obedience to become the Mother of Christ, through her God took on human nature and the way was opened for our salvation. Mary’s ready response to the Angel Gabriel teaches us how to react to God’s calling.
- God’s great sign of love is that Christ is carried through a human pregnancy so fulfilling prophecy. God is now personally amongst us. God is with us.
Advent is a season of great joy as well as a spiritual pilgrimage towards celebrating the Incarnation. It is also a season for loving others and almsgiving. The emphasis on “feasting” is saved for the Feast and the 12 days following (‘The 12 days of Christmas’!) - that is, as far as we can manage it in our society! All admit that we have to allow for some flexibility. Since fasting for the Orthodox refers mainly to abstaining from animal and dairy products, there is a lot of room for creativity! There is always a mixture of joyful anticipation as well as spiritual preparation.