The Advent season of 2019 runs from the evening of Saturday, November 30, and extends through the early afternoon of Tuesday, December 24, encompassing the four Sundays before Christmas. Advent is one of the most misunderstood seasons of the Church year, perhaps because of its complicated origins. To begin with, the feast of Christmas itself was established in the Roman west in the mid-fourth century. The Eastern Christians celebrated the Epiphany as its primary feast of the Incarnation, and the Eastern practice of baptizing on January 6 caught on in Gaul [France] and Spain as well. Consequently, the earliest traces of an Advent season had something of a catechumenal flavor, a preparation for meeting the incarnate Savior come to earth in the waters of baptism.
The first record of a “fasting” or penitential pre-Christmas season has been traced to Tours in modern France around 490 A.D., and a practice known as “St. Martin’s Lent” [from the Feast of St. Martin of Tours on November 11 until Christmas] became a template for a more penitential atmosphere through Advent. Pope St. Gregory the Great [r. 590-604 A.D.] formalized the time and theology of this season, Gregory’s directives make clear that he envisioned Advent as a season of preparation for the celebration of the first coming of Christ, his historical birth, and he deemphasized the apocalyptic aspect of Advent as a time of wonder and expectation of the Second Coming. Later, the Irish monks, Christianity’s first confessors and moralists, envisioned the Second Coming as a time of grim judgment and punishment, reinforcing a penitential strain. The tradition of purple vestments—the same color worn during Lent—dates to this era.
But since the time of Gregory, there has been a schizophrenic understanding of Advent in the Church, a tug of war between which of the two comings of Christ should be emphasized. This question has greater pastoral and catechetical implications than generally appreciated. I suspect that most folks who came to Mass this Thanksgiving weekend and who saw the purple colors of Advent assumed [and they were not grossly incorrect] that the liturgy of the First Sunday of Advent begins a time of focus upon the birth of Christ in Bethlehem.
However, the readings at this weekend’s liturgy of the First Sunday of Advent [year A] are as future oriented as any collection in the liturgical calendar. We have apocalyptic readings this weekend galore, including a segment of St. Matthew’s Chapter 24, often called his “little apocalypse.” The same futuristic strain runs through the second and third Sundays of Advent. There is a specific date in the Roman Missal/Lectionary when the Scripture emphasis shifts from the Christ yet to come back to the historical event of his birth. That date is December 17, where the Gospel of the day proclaims the genealogy of Christ, and subsequent days narrate the events leading to Bethlehem. The Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Advent is Matthew’s description of the birth of Christ, a text which may be used at Christmas Masses themselves if a pastor chose to do that. [Most churches use St. Luke’s Christmas account at all the December 24-25 Masses, though there are multiple choices.]
This division of Advent observance into two distinct moods—expectation of apocalyptic drama and consolation at Jesus’ birth among the poor—is reflected in the Mass Lectionary of Pope Pius V, the Roman Missal in use from 1570. After Vatican II and the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy [or Sacrosanctum Concilium], the new rite of Pope Paul VI was promulgated around the world in 1969, under the instructions of the “General Norms for the Liturgical Church Year.” In its instruction regarding Advent, the General Norms had this to say [para. 39]: “Advent has a twofold character: as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ's first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ's Second Coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation.”
There is an old joke, “did the people of the middle ages know they were living in the middle ages?” Historians tell us that Christians who put their minds to such things back then did believe they were living in middle times, between the first coming of Christ recorded in the Gospels, and the dramatic Second Coming of Christ in glory to render judgment and gather his own.
The mood of the sacred liturgy of Advent hovers between what we have been given and what is yet to come in the judgment of God. Too much preaching and catechetical fixation on the first coming of Christ obfuscates the second. An advent for adults brings emphasis to the future. We cannot envision its details, but we can grasp that—as stated in the Nicene Creed—Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. The Gospel’s apocalyptic language, particularly Matthew’s Chapter 24, make it clear that while the first coming of Christ puts us in the place of the Bethlehem shepherds, filled with passive wonder and awe, the Second Coming will be shaped—for good or for grief—by our active response or neglect of the first.