The season of Advent has a timeless liturgical spirituality of longing, redemption and grace and an interesting, somewhat convoluted history. The several strands of its development illustrate the way in which the whole liturgical year has evolved over many centuries in relationship to cosmic time, the lunar and solar cycles, historical computations, the genius of particular cultures and universal ritual instincts. As a season of preparation, Advent postdates the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord (fourth century) and the feast of the Epiphany, which likely developed even earlier in the Christian East. But for what exactly did Advent prepare? A commemoration of Jesus’ birth in time? An anticipation of Christ’s coming in glory at the end of the age? A deeper experience, now, of God with us? Advent appears to be a tapestry woven of all of them. During these preparatory weeks when past and future meet, Advent highlights first one aspect, then another of God’s promise of salvation.
In searching for the origins of the season, liturgical scholars have been intrigued by the close resemblance between the seasons of Advent and Lent. Some scholars have speculated that both seasons developed as preparation for baptism at Epiphany and the Easter Vigil respectively. The original six- to eight-week length of the Advent season, its ascetical character, its frequent assemblies for prayer—all seemed to suggest that Advent served, as did Lent, as a time of conversion and catechesis in preparation for the sacraments of Christian initiation. This theory is less frequently advanced today, however, since it lacks clear liturgical evidence.
Other intriguing fragments of evidence suggest that the Advent season originated in Spain and Gaul. Toward the end of the fourth century the Synod of Saragossa obliged the Christian community to come to church daily from Dec. 17 through Jan. 6. The first of these three weeks corresponded to the pagan celebration of the Saturnalia, and it may have been the intention of the Spanish synod to replace a pagan festival celebrating the winter solstice and the Unconquered Sun god with a Christian festival in honor of the Sun of Justice and Righteousness, Christ the Lord. The synod mandate, however, never explicitly mentions the observance of Christmas.
In sources from fifth-century Gaul, scholars find definite evidence of fasting three days a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, beginning on Nov. 11, the feast of St. Martin. St. Martin’s Fast, as it was called, was a period of ritual asceticism in preparation for Christmas. The fast may have developed from the thrice-yearly fasts of 40 days observed by Celtic monks. In Gaul, the fast days before Christmas gradually took on a more penitential tone. The coming of Christ in judgment was emphasized more than Christ’s coming in the flesh: the Gloria and the Alleluia were dropped from the eucharistic celebration; the Te Deum was dropped from the Liturgy of the Hours; and the color purple was adopted for the season.
Advent took its definitive shape in the church of Rome over the next several centuries. From at least the second century, Christians in Rome fasted in December, one of a number of fasts corresponding to the phases of planting and harvesting that became the quarterly ember days. We may detect here a brief period of fasting and feasting related to the temporal agricultural cycle quite independent of Christmas. But certainly by the time of Gregory the Great, in the sixth century, the church of Rome celebrated four Sunday Masses together with three ember-day Masses, whose focus was to prepare for the Lord’s birth rather than the final coming of Christ in judgment.
Liturgical books of the eighth and ninth centuries definitively link Mass formularies for Advent to those of Christmas. They also move the season of Advent, which concludes the calendar year, to the beginning of the church year, assigning to Advent the singular role of herald. That is how Advent became the festive season that announces the whole mystery of Christ about to unfold each year. Gradually, because of the pre-eminence of the church of Rome, a four-week Advent was adopted widely. By the second millennium, the more penitential elements of the Gallican Church also found their way into the Roman rite.
A Double Focus
The double focus of preparation for the commemoration of Christ’s birth and expectation of the Second Coming remains the liturgical focus of Advent today, though the reforms of Vatican II eliminate its more penitential overlays and describe Advent as “a time of devout and joyful expectation.” Mass texts, hymns, antiphons and even popular customs—the Advent wreath, the Jesse tree, the blessing of the crèche—converge around Advent’s twofold character. This season is both “a time to prepare for Christmas when Christ’s First Coming is remembered” and a time when that remembrance “directs the mind and heart to await Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time.”
Advent begins on the Sunday closest to Nov. 30, and until Dec. 17 it focuses on Christ’s coming in glory. One can detect a seamless movement from the last Sundays of ordinary time, fixed as they are on the great eschatological themes that conclude with the feast of Christ the King, and the beginning weeks of Advent. The year turns on the salvation promised us “when Christ our Lord will come again in glory,” and “we shall at last possess in its fullness the promise for which we dare to hope.” God will come in power; his revelation will transform us and be the source of our peace and reconciliation; his splendor will fill the darkness of this season and the dark corners of our world; his promise is one of hope, comfort, justice and transformation.
Preparing for Christ’s Birth in Time
On Dec. 17, however, the focus of the liturgy shifts to the mystery of Christ’s birth in time. Christmas is almost upon us, and we hasten to ready our minds and hearts so that the promised transformation will be ours. The preface assigned to these days captures the essence of our story:
His future coming was proclaimed by all the prophets. The virgin mother bore him in her womb with love beyond all telling. John the Baptist was his herald and made him known when at last he came.
In his love Christ has filled us with joy as we prepare to celebrate his birth, so that when he comes he may find us watching in prayer, our hearts filled with wonder and praise.
During these final Advent days our prayer becomes audacious: “May we come to share the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share our human nature.” These are the days when the longing of the human community for deliverance from all that impedes that divinization finds expression in the ancient “O Antiphons,” some of the most lyrical and beautiful of all liturgical texts. They take their name from the interjection “O” that precedes each title of Christ.
Probably dating from the eighth century, these seven anonymous texts introduce the Magnificat at evening prayer and are used as Gospel acclamations at the Eucharist, beginning on Dec. 17. Each antiphon addresses Christ under a different scriptural title and, citing the promises of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, concludes with a petition that Christ’s coming, now, will make salvation ours:
O Wisdom…come to teach us the way of your truth.
O Adonai and Leader of Israel…come to save us with your mighty power.
O Stock of Jesse…come to deliver us and do not delay.
O Key of David…come to lead your captive people into freedom.
O Rising Sun…come to enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
O Desired of the nations…come to end our sad divisions and bind us one to another in peace.
O Emmanuel, God always with us…come to set us free.
These prayers are not hopes for some distant future. They express the longings of the human heart for its deepest needs now: truth, deliverance, freedom, enlightenment, unity, peace, salvation. The prayers echo the promises of God on which we now lean with ever greater urgency.
Come, Lord Jesus
Come, we cry, and do not delay! Come into our lives; come into our relationships; come into the pain and suffering of these days within us and across our troubled world; come to bring light to the darkness of our minds and hearts so that our lives are more transparent and honest; come to free us from every compulsion and addiction that keeps us captive; come to reveal your deepest desires for us, here and now; come to transform us so profoundly that we will embrace your desires for all your people as our own. So purify our longings and animate our choices that we, by our very living of the Advent mystery, will hasten the day when your promises will all be fulfilled.
In this season of sometimes frantic activity, blatant commercialism and festive excess, the liturgy of Advent captures the pervasive yearnings of our world: the longing for God, the hunger for justice, the desire for equality, the thirst for meaning and the ache to belong—the deep desires that we ourselves experience.
During these days, poised as we are between past and future, between Christ’s first and second coming, the texts and hymns and customs of Advent express our hope against hope that God’s desires become our own and that, in the meantime in which we live, we become Christ’s heart on earth, agents of God’s promises for one another. During these holy days it is not just our God who is a God of promises. We too have promises to keep.
Claiming God’s Promises
The language of the Advent liturgy is filled with hope, eager expectation, longing, and confidence:
There will be endless day.
The Lord…will reward the crown of justice to all who have longed for his coming.
The Lord…will bring every hidden thing to light and reveal himself to every nation.
The Lord our God…will fill his servants with joy.
We wait for the happiness to come when our great God reveals himself in glory.
The Lord is coming to visit his people, and bring them peace and eternal life.
The glory of the Son will make radiant the night of the waiting world.