"When I was a young person we never observed Advent," said Marion, a member of the older adult class at Belmont United Methodist. "We sang Christmas carols for a few Sundays before Christmas, and the pastor preached about the birth of Jesus on the Sunday before Christmas; and that was it. Now it seems like the church is really into this Advent thing and we seem to reserve Christmas carols until just before Christmas."
So where did the season of Advent come from? Here is an attempt at a partial response — going back to the sacred Scriptures and to the early centuries of the church.
First, recall that the building blocks of Advent — its images, stories, memories, promises, songs, and hopes — are already present in the Bible. The rich images of the prophets Isaiah and Amos are there. The stories of John, Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, and John the Baptist are found in the Scriptures. There are Israel’s memories of exile and the hope for a day when God would restore hope, justice, and rulers in the line of David. There you find the songs: Mary‘s song, Zechariah's song, and the psalms of lament, anguish, and hope. The vision of a new heaven and a new earth is there. Jesus’ call to be alert because we don’t know the day or the hour when the Son of Man will come is there. Paul's and Peter’s words to believers awaiting the return of the risen Lord (the second coming) are there. All of this was there by the end of the first century. It was only a matter of time until the churches in various places began to find ways to weave these elements into their worship and into the ways they kept time together.
How Did We Come to Advent as a Season?
We really don’t know when and where Advent began to be observed, but drawing upon Adam Adolf's work in The Liturgical Year(Pueblo Books, 1978), we are able to sketch an outline of the origins of the Advent season.
The first faint traces of Advent emerge in popular piety and custom in various places by early fourth century.
In Spain and Gaul (equivalent to the area we now call Western Europe), Christians observed a period of fasting and preparation for baptism. The region had close links with Eastern Christianity’s (Syria and other eastern Mediterranean areas) celebration of the feast of Christ’s birth on Epiphany (January 6) as a day for baptism.
The oldest witness to Advent as a time of preparation comes from Bishop Perpetuus of Tours (490) who called for times of fasting from the feast of St. Martin on November 11 to Epiphany Day on January 6. There was already a custom of "St. Martin’s Lent" that lasted eight weeks. The use of "Lent" may reflect the desire to parallel the disciplines of Lent in the weeks prior to Epiphany and shows the importance of preparing people for baptism.
The first evidence of emerging Advent worship practices comes from Ravenna, Italy, in the mid-fifth century. Again, the city was strongly influenced by Eastern Christianity. The expectation of the celebration of the birth of Christ was the central theme. By mid-sixthth century in Rome, the mass made use of Advent themes. Under Gregory the Great (590-615), there were four Sundays of Advent — although the focus was not so much on the second coming of Christ as on the incarnation of Christ and on preparation for the celebration.
The focus on the eschatological dimension of Advent emerged under the influence of the Irish missionaries who put strong emphasis on the coming of the Lord for judgment. They preached for penitence, so Advent became a penitential season. The Gloria ("Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth." United Methodist Hymnal, 83) and the "alleluia" were suppressed in the Mass, and the "Te Deum" (United Methodist Hymnal, 80) in the daily office. Purple vestments were used.
These Gallic penitential practices spread to Rome by the twelfth century. Rome adopted the practice of wearing purple vestments and of omitting the "Gloria" but retained the "alleluia." The reason for omitting the "Gloria" was not because of heavy penitence, but to allow the "angel’s song" to ring out more clearly and in all its newness at Christmas.
Rome fixed the length of the season at four Sundays, although it varied in different areas between four and six Sundays. Even today, Milan still observes six Sundays. By the tenth and eleventh centuries, Rome’s solution was generally accepted in Western Europe.
Under our current ecumenical practice (the calendar and Revised Common Lectionary) the first Sunday of Advent can be as early as November 27 and as late as December 3. This makes for some interesting calendar situations. For example, every few years the fourth Sunday of Advent falls on December 24. On such days, the church gathers for worship on the fourth Sunday of Advent in the morning; then it gathers again after sunset to celebrate Christmas Eve.
In the last third of the twentieth century, the liturgical reform movement bore fruit. The ecumenical efforts of Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans/Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and others came together around a revised calendar of the year and the three-year lectionary system, including the Revised Common Lectionary (see http://www.commontexts.org/). These have been widely accepted, and the result has been broad adoption of Advent as a season leading to Christmas and not simply a "pre-Christmas Christmas."
- In this revised liturgical approach, each Sunday of Advent has its distinctive theme: First Sunday — Christ's coming in final victory; Second and Third Sundays — John the Baptist; Fourth Sunday — the events immediately preceding birth of Jesus Christ (See The United Methodist Book of Worship, 238)
For Further Reading and Help in Appreciating and Understanding Advent
Adolf Adam, The Liturgical Year: Its History and Meaning After the Reform of the Liturgy(Pueblo Books, 1978)
Hoyt L. Hickman et. al., The New Handbook of the Christian Year(Abingdon, 1992)
Laurence Hull Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church(Abingdon, 1996)
James F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship,Third Edition (Abingdon, 2001)
The United Methodist Book of Worship (The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992) See especially the calendar ( 224), the lectionary readings (227-228), the introduction to the season of Advent (238) and the rubrics for various ritual acts and services (258, 260, 261, 262, 262, and 266).