The season of Advent has been with us since the fourth century, although it has not been a part of the liturgical observance of all denominations and churches. With the mixing of Christmas and Advent during the weeks leading up to Christmas Day, there is often confusion of the two. Here are the basics of Advent:
When. Advent marks the beginning of the church year. It begins with the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day and ends Christmas Eve. If Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, Advent will last four full weeks. If Christmas Day falls on any other day of the week, Advent will last less than four weeks. If Christmas falls on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, all of Advent will be in December. If Christmas falls on any other day of the week, Advent will begin in November.
What. Advent comes from the Latin word, adventus, meaning "coming." It is a season to prepare for the coming of Christ in various meanings: the promised coming of the Messiah to the Jews, the coming of Jesus being born in Bethlehem, the promised return of the risen Christ in final victory, and the continual coming of Christ into the lives and hearts of believers.
Liturgical Context. Advent, which marks the beginning of the liturgical year, is part of the cycle of seasons that includes Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, all related in some fashion to the coming of Jesus. That cycle is followed by Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and the long Pentecost season.
History. Advent began in France in the fourth century. In various times and locations of the church, Advent has been observed for three, four, and six weeks leading to Christmas. Some churches today are experimenting with incorporating Advent themes and symbols in worship during the weeks prior to the actual start of Advent in the hope that they can avoid the conflict of Advent versus Christmas observance during the immediate weeks prior to Christmas. (See "A Modest Proposal for Advent/Christmas Peace.")
Color. The color for Advent has traditionally been purple. Some churches have adopted blue for Advent. In practice, however, as churches increasingly incorporate the symbols and decorations of Christmas during Advent, more and more we see red, green, and gold appearing. The United Methodist Book of Worship upholds the traditional color of purple for Advent, signifying penitence and royalty; but it also allows blue, the color of hope.
Themes, Images, Symbols, and Practices. There are a number of historic and traditional themes observed during Advent:
Preparing to celebrate the coming of Christ:
- The coming of the Messiah to the Jews.
- The coming of Jesus into the world at Bethlehem.
- The second coming of Jesus in final victory.
- The continual coming of Jesus into the hearts and lives of believers.
- A time of penitence and fasting, austerity, seriousness, reading of Scripture, hearing and proclaiming the Word in sermon and song; waiting and longing for the Messiah's coming.
- Symbols: Chrismon tree with its white monograms, the Jesse tree, Advent calendars, trumpets (for Isaiah), the messianic rose, star of Jacob, and fleur-de-lis. Modern innovation includes the use of an Advent wreath with four candles and themes around hope-peace-love-joy, John-Elizabeth-Joseph-Mary, or some other pattern.
Our Book of Worship (p.238) calls for the following themes for the Sundays of Advent:
- First Sunday: the final return of Christ in victory; the Second Coming
- Second and Third Sundays: John the Baptist, his role, his words, his teachings
- Fourth Sunday: the events immediately preceding Jesus' birth
Hymns and Songs. The United Methodist Hymnal, The Faith We Sing, and the Discipleship Ministries worship website provide many excellent hymns and songs for Advent worship. Consider these:
Discipleship Ministries website: Christmas & Advent Music and Lyrics
The United Methodist Hymnal
- 195-216, United Methodist Hymnal
- 184, "Of the Father's Love Begotten"
- 626, "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence"
- 706, "Soon and Very Soon"
- 717, "Battle Hymn of the Republic" (st. 1,3,5)
- 718, "Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending"
- 719, "My Lord, What a Morning"
- 720, "Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying"
- 722, "I Want to Be Ready"
- 724, "On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand"
- 729, "O Day of Peace That Dimly Shines"
- 730, "O Day of God, Draw Nigh"
The Faith We Sing
- 2085, "He Came Down"
- 2089, "Wild and Lone the Prophet's Voice"
- 2090, "Light the Advent Candle"
- 2091, "The King of Glory Comes"
- 2092, "Like a Child"
- 2093, "The Snow Lay on the Ground"
- 2095, "Star-Child"
- 2154, "Please Enter My Heart, Hosanna"
- 2187, "Now It Is Evening"
- 2192, "Freedom Is Coming"
- 2284, "Joy in the Morning"
- 2232, "Come Now, O Prince of Peace
The Intrusion of Christmas. Advent is a season rich in tradition, symbolism, art, music, and liturgical practice. It has its own unique themes as well as those that point the way to Christmas. And yet, we annually confront the pressures and questions of "Why can't we put up the Christmas tree in the sanctuary on the first Sunday of Advent?" and "Why can't we sing Christmas carols in early December?" The answer, of course, is that to do so allows Christmas to intrude. It allows the themes, practices, spirituality, history, traditions, symbols, art, and music of one season to displace those of another. We lose the richness and the benefit of experiencing the promise, longing, hope, and expectation of Advent. The world, television, and shopping malls have done all they can to convince us that Advent does not matter; it has no place in our culture; and many of us have come to accept that for our church, as well. Our faith teaches us something very different.