On November 27th, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, we begin our Advent preparations. Advent is a season observed as a time of expectant waiting for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas. The term is a version of the Latin word meaning “coming,” commonly used to refer to the Second Coming of Christ. For Christians, the season of Advent anticipates the coming of Christ from two different perspectives. The season offers the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah and to be alert for his Second Coming.
Advent is the beginning of the Western liturgical year and commences on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, the Sunday nearest to St. Andrew’s Day (30 November), in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, and in the Anglican, Lutheran, Moravian, Presbyterian and Methodist calendars. Practices associated with Advent include keeping an Advent calendar, lighting an Advent wreath, praying an Advent daily devotional, as well as other ways of preparing for Christmas, such as setting up Christmas decorations.
It is unknown when the period of preparation for Christmas that is now called Advent first began – it was certainly in existence from about 480 A.D., and some have even said it goes back to the time of the Twelve Apostles. This has led to the conclusion that it is “impossible to claim with confidence a credible explanation of the origin of Advent.” Associated with Advent was a period of fasting, known also as the Nativity Fast. The theme of readings and teachings during Advent is the preparation for the Second Coming, while also commemorating the First Coming of Christ at Christmas. Traditions vary in the relative importance of penitence and expectation during the weeks in Advent.
The usual liturgical color in Western Christianity for Advent is either violet (or purple) or blue. In some Christian denominations, blue, a color representing hope, is an alternative liturgical color for Advent, a custom traced to the usage of the Church of Sweden (Lutheran) and the medieval Sarum Rite in England. This color is often referred to as “Sarum blue.” On the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, rose may be used instead, referencing the rose used on Laetare Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Lent.
Many churches also hold special musical events, such as Nine Lessons and Carols and singing of Handel’s Messiah oratorio. The antiphons for the Magnificat at Evensong in Anglican churches each day mark the forthcoming birth of the Messiah. They form the basis for each verse of the popular Advent hymn, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” During Advent, the Gloria of the Eucharist is omitted, so that the return of the angels’ song at Christmas has an effect of novelty.
In recent times, the most common observance of Advent outside church circles has been the keeping of an Advent calendar, with one door being opened in the calendar on each day in December leading up to Christmas Eve. The keeping of an Advent wreath or crown is also a common practice in homes and churches. 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. The readings for the second Sunday concern Christ’s birth in a manger and other prophecies, so the candle may be called of Bethlehem. The third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday after the first word of the introit (Philippians 4:4), is celebrated with rose-colored vestments. The readings relate to St. John the Baptist, and the rose candle may be called of joy or of the shepherds. 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, recalling their proclamation of peace on Earth. Where an Advent wreath includes a fifth candle, it is known as the Christ candle and His lit during the Christmas Eve service. 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. Research points to Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808–1881), a Protestant pastor in Germany and a pioneer in urban mission work among the poor, as the inventor of the modern Advent wreath in the 19th century. During Advent, children at his mission school in Hamburg, would ask daily if Christmas had arrived. In 1839, he built a large wooden ring (made out of an old cartwheel) with 20 small red and 4 large white candles. A small candle was lit successively every weekday and Saturday during Advent. On Sundays, a large white candle was lit. The custom gained ground among Protestant churches in Germany and evolved into the smaller wreath with four or five candles known today. Roman Catholics in Germany began to adopt the custom in the 1920s, and in the 1930s it spread to North America, and has become an established tradition in our Episcopal Church.
Yours in Christ,
The Rev. Dr. Tom Bauer