Advent marks the time of spiritual preparation by the faithful before Christmas. Historically, the Roman Church began Advent on the Sunday closest to the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle (November 30). Maintaining this tradition Advent spans four Sundays and four weeks of preparation, although the last week of Advent is usually shortened because of when Christmas falls.
The celebration of Advent has evolved in the spiritual life of the Church. The historical origins of Advent are hard to determine with great precision. In its earliest form, beginning in France, Advent was a period of preparation for the feast of the Epiphany, a day when converts were baptized; so the Advent preparation was very similar to Lent with an emphasis on prayer and fasting which lasted three weeks and later was expanded to 40 days. Inspired by the Lenten regulations, the church designated that from November 11, until Christmas, fasting would be required on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Eventually, similar practices spread to England. In Rome, the Advent preparation did not appear until the sixth century and was viewed as a preparation for Christmas with less of a penitential bent.
The Church gradually more formalized the celebration of Advent with five Sundays. This in turn led the church to enhance the celebration of Advent through the composing of prayers, readings and responses, read or sung. Later the church reduced the number of Sundays in Advent to four. Finally, about the ninth century, the Church designated the first Sunday of Advent as the beginning of the Church year.
Today, the importance of this season remains to focus on the coming of our Lord. (Advent comes from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming.”) Advent has a two-fold meaning of this coming: When the Church celebrates Advent each year, the church makes present the ancient expectancy of the Messiah by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming. Also Advent encourages the faithful to renew their passionate desire for His second coming.
Therefore, on one hand, the faithful reflect and are encouraged to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord’s first coming into this world. We ponder again the great mystery of the incarnation when our Lord humbled Himself, taking on our humanity, and entered our time and space to free us from sin. On the other hand, we recall in the Apostles Creed that our Lord will come again to judge the living and the dead and that we must be ready to meet Him.
In the 1500s the church borrowed from German Lutherans by incorporating the use of the Advent wreath. The wreath is a circle, which has no beginning or end; so we call to mind how our lives, here and now, participate in the eternity of God’s plan of salvation and how we hope to share eternal life in God’s Kingdom. The wreath is made of fresh plant material, because Christ came to give us new life through His passion, death and resurrection. The four purple candles symbolize Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. The white candle represents Christ, who entered this world to scatter the darkness of evil and show us the way of righteousness. The progression of lighting candles shows our increasing readiness to meet our Lord.
The tradition of Advent helps us to focus on the true meaning of Christmas. In all, during Advent we strive to fulfill the Lord’s Prayer by increasing our longing for Christ our Savior that strengthens us to grow in love, and at the dawn of His coming may find us rejoicing in His presence and welcoming the light of His truth.