For most of the world, Advent is a time to prepare, to get ready. From the frenetic rush to buy presents, decorate and plan holiday parties amidst the commercial world’s reminders of the number of shopping days ‘til Christmas, to the more intense time of prayer, fasting and alms-giving that the Church calls us to, it seems that the whole world – from Thanksgiving unto December 25 – is anticipating a great event.
How did this season come to be included in the Christian liturgical calendar, which primarily centers around the great miracle of the Resurrection? While Epiphany (which celebrates Christ’s baptism, the coming of the Magi, and the acknowledgment of Jesus as Savior to Gentiles as well as Jews) was probably established on the calendar before Advent and Christmas, it was in the early years of Christianity that December 25 began to be celebrated as the birthday of Christ. That date had been observed in pre-Christian Rome as the day of the winter solstice and had been named by the Emperor Aurelian in 274 as the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun” (Natalis Solis invicta). The Church of Rome “baptized” the already well-known festival. St. John Chrysostom reminded the Christians of Constantinople that the Romans had access to tax and census records and knew when Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem at that fateful time. Another view, based on the chronology of St. Luke’s gospel, holds that the date of Christmas is determined by Zechariah making his offering at the Day of Atonement (in late September), and the conception of John the Baptist soon followed; Luke 1:26 tells us that six months later Mary conceived (in late March) and nine months later Christ was born (in late December). Controversy surrounding the Arian heresy (which denied the human nature of Christ) probably contributed to the increased emphasis on Christmas, and by the end of the 4th century, December 25 was observed throughout the Christian world as the Nativity of our Lord.
Bishops began to exhort their people to prepare their hearts for this celebration. Sermons by Ss. Maximus of Turin (380-451) and Caesarius of Arles (470-543), among many others, called for observing a pre-Christmas time of preparation. St. Gregory of Tours (538-594) relates in his History of the Franks, that in 480, a predecessor had designated a period of preparation from St. Martins’ Day, Nov. 11. For the next 500 years, the season of Advent was observed throughout the West, but the length and type of practices varied widely from place to place and time to time.
Fasting has always been a central aspect of Advent observances. At first, “fasting” meant no food at all during the day, and this was limited in most places to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Eventually, the fast was redefined as eating one meatless meal per day. (It was not until 1781 that the Roman Catholic Church formally differentiated the terms fasting and abstinence.) While the time of preparation was at first called “St. Martin’s Lent” and lasted from November 11, by the 9th century, the time had been reduced to four weeks in Rome.
The post-Schism West began to greatly reduce the physical requirements of Advent: in some dioceses in the 12th century, only the clergy were required to observe the fast; a local council at Salisbury in 1281 decreed that only monks were expected to fast in Advent. In 1362, Pope Urban V required only the papal clergy to fast. In the East, greater uniformity of practice in the observance of the Nativity preparations gradually developed and the current expectation is of a fast (similar to the Lenten fast) from November 15 to December 25.
The Western liturgical emphasis throughout Advent is on repentance, watching, and waiting. The Mass readings begin with Christ’s warnings regarding the end times and continue with St. John the Baptist’s calls to “repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” We are to prepare our hearts not only for remembering the birth of Jesus, but also for the second coming of Christ at the end of time.
This season is characterized by purple vestments (also used in Lent, the other penitential season) and the absence of the Gloria in excelsis at Mass and the Te Deum at Matins. However, unlike in Lent, we continue to sing Alleluia throughout the Advent season.
The series of Magnificat antiphons known as the “O” antiphons for use at Vespers on the 8 (in Roman usage) or 9 (English usage) days prior to Christmas were seasonal enhancements in use by the 8th century. Each of the antiphons refers to a prophecy of Isaiah, using names given for the expected Messiah (the final antiphon in the English use refers to the Virgin birth).
In more recent centuries, newer traditions have been added to our Advent observances. The Advent wreath is of German origin and provides a way of marking the weeks before Christmas. Children count the days of Advent by opening the windows on Advent calendars, another practice of German origin. The non-liturgical service of Advent Lessons and Carols was begun in England in the early 20th century and has become a much-loved means of preparation.
In all these ways – through the discipline and liturgical practices of the Church and the popular customs of recent origin – we prepare our hearts and minds to celebrate with joy the fact that God took our flesh upon him and became man so that we might become partakers of his nature.
(Sources: The Oxford Companion to the Year, by Blackburn & Holford-Stevens; The Shape of the Liturgy, Dom Gregory Dix; The Liturgical Year, Volume I, Dom Prosper Guéranger; The Origins of the Liturgical Year, Thomas Talley.)