A friend of mine remarked a few years ago that this “Advent” was something new, that she had never heard of it when she was growing up. Actually, no one knows when Christian churches began to observe Advent, but the Oxford English Dictionary quotes the Old English Chronicle of 1099-1121, “þe fyrste sunnondæg of Aduent” (“the first Sunday of Advent”) as the earliest reference to Advent in English. So, it really is not all that new.
Advent comes from the Latin word adventus or arrival. Advent refers to the season of some four weeks before Christmas, set aside on the church calendar as a time of preparation for the celebration of the nativity or Christmas. In the Western Churches, Advent begins with the Sunday nearest St. Andrew’s Day (November 30) and lasts until Christmas. This year, Advent begins on November 28.
Since the sixth century, Advent has marked the beginning of the church year, noting as it does the historical first advent or coming of Christ as well as his second coming in judgment. Advent is sometimes called the “winter Lent,” coming before Christmas, just as Lent, in the spring, comes before Christmas. Before the festival (Christmas or Easter), there must be a somber time of preparation. Traditionally, during the time of Advent, festivities were forbidden, and the authorities encouraged fasting.
Advent often attracts popular, folkloric customs. In our time, popular Advent customs include the Advent wreath, with candles that are lit each Sunday in Advent, and the Advent calendar, which parents share with children to help them count down the time until Christmas.
Many churches today share a common lectionary, or a three-year cycle of readings from the Bible. The readings for Advent emphasize the expectation of the coming of the Messiah in the Old Testament. The readings for Advent 2010 can be found here.
Music is a special part of the Advent season, and perhaps the best-known and most typical of all the Advent songs is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” It has been recorded by classical artists, such as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and the Choir of King’s College. It has also been recorded by Joan Baez, Bette Midler, Clay Aiken, Enya, and Boyz II Men. (See a thorough list here.)
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is often identified as a Christmas carol, but if you listen to the words – beginning with the title – you can tell that it is not about the birth of Christ but about anticipating the birth of Christ. You can read and hear the lyrics [not my link, which is why I always put my links on words like here and source] online here.
My friend, it turned out, belongs to a church that did not typically observe the church calender much beyond Christmas and Easter, but which had added Advent devotions to enrich the spiritual life of the congregation, as a number of congregations have in recent years. Of course, the keeping of Advent is not a biblical practice; for that matter, as some Christian churches will remind us, neither is Christmas, which under the Puritans was actually outlawed.
I have previously written about Advent (“Advent and Age”) here. You might enjoy my other articles on Christian holidays and other topics, for which I maintain an index page.
Note links throughout the article.
Lutheran Church Missouri Synod – webpage
New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia – article