So, what is Advent and what are we supposed to do with it? Advent, from the Latin for “coming” or “arrival,” is a period of fasting and prayer in preparation for the First and Second Comings of Christ, the events that we sum up in our creeds and catechisms as the “Incarnation,” from the Latin caro, flesh. As the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. decreed, drawing from such Gospel sources as John 1:14, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The reality of the Incarnation sets humanity in a new and exalted state, capable of hearing divine revelation, morally acting in imitation of God-on-earth and destined for an eternal reward. The doctrine of the Incarnation was further clarified in the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which defined Jesus Christ as equally God and man in one functional being, which is about as far as the unaided human mind can carry a definition of divine manhood. As the doctrine developed, so did the liturgy which celebrated it.
Historically speaking, a feast of the Incarnation was established early in Church life, but there was no knowledge of the precise date and circumstances of Jesus’ birth. The Feast of Christmas was established probably in the 330’s A.D., the date falling on or near the winter solstice. The two Gospels that lay out a birth scenario for Jesus do not attempt to date the event; they were more concerned with the implications of Jesus’ birth as we will see in future posts this month. Moreover, the early Christians did not celebrate birthdays of saints, particularly martyrs. Rather, feasts of saints, and even Jesus, were observed on the day of their deaths, most often martyrdom. Why the Feast of Christmas was eventually established on December 25 may be explained by the fact that many cultures and religions celebrated a major feast around the winter solstice or shortly thereafter, a kind of “victory of the sun” celebration as the days become longer after December 21. Christians may have set the date of Christmas as a countercultural sign. A historical tidbit: when the date of December 25 was ultimately chosen, the day was already occupied by another feast, the martyrdom of the virgin Anastasia, whose biography of charity and courage was a major source of inspiration in the early Church. St. Anastasia is one of seven women martyrs remembered in today’s Eucharistic Prayer I in the Mass missal, and she is still remembered in the dawn Mass of Christmas Day.
As Christmas Day took on greater importance in the development of Church worship, the practice of a solemn preparation began, first in the monasteries of both the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity. In the Roman West, the Council of Tours in 587 A.D. instructed monks to fast every day in December until Christmas, and gradually a liturgical season of penance developed in preparation for the Christmas feast throughout the entire Church. Vatican II reforms emphasized the difference between the Advent spirit of watchfulness and fasting for Christ’s twofold comings and Lent’s 40-day penitential fast in preparation for the Easter Triduum. Some churches use blue vestments instead of violet/purple, a minor violation of Church law.
Advent is somewhat shorter than Lent. The First Sunday of Advent is always dated as the fourth Sunday before Christmas, putting it near November 30 every year and, here in the United States, on Thanksgiving weekend. To the naked eye, the change in color from the green of Ordinary Time to the violet of penance is evident, as is an Advent wreath—the four candle symbol of the Advent observance usually lit and blessed in church. Many families create or purchase Advent wreaths for their homes; most parishes provide accompanying resources for prayer at the daily lighting in homes.
In the twenty-some days of the Advent season, the Church focuses upon the coming of the person of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scripture promises and the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time. It can be a bit confusing that the First Sunday of Advent places emphasis upon the second coming and not the first; in fact, the weekday Gospels of Advent through December 16 feature the futuristic preaching of the adult Jesus, a mood of caution to prepare for future judgment while at the same time looking forward to an ultimate deliverance and eternal life. From December 17 the weekday and Sunday Gospels draw from the two narratives leading up to the birth of Jesus, from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke exclusively.
In the next several posts we will look at the Advent-Christmas cycle more closely. For example, what can history tell us about the expectations of a savior and the content of the two Christmas narratives of Matthew and Luke? How do scripture scholars go about their work in unpacking the nature of Christ [Christology] from the Biblical texts? Who is John the Baptist, and what is his relation to Jesus? Similarly, how is Mary portrayed in the Advent-Christmas cycle of feasts? It is difficult, I know, to focus our meditation on such things in the hyperactive civil observances around us, but perhaps the Christians faced the same issues in the pagan atmosphere of fourth century Rome…and made December 25 their rebuttal with things real.