The simplest way to explain it is, Advent is a time of anticipation for Christ’s birth in the season leading up to Christmas. But that is only part of it. The word “Advent” is derived from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming.” In the Greek translation, this means parousia.
Scholars believe that during the 4th and 5th centuries, Advent was a season of ‘preparation’ for the baptism of new Christian’s at the January feast of Epiphany, the celebration of God’s incarnation represented by the visit of the Magi to baby Jesus (Matthew 2:1), His baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist (John 1:29), and His first miracle at Cana (John 2:1). During this season of preparation, Christian’s would spend 40 days in penance, prayer, and fasting to prepare for the celebration. By the 6th century, Roman Christians had tied Advent to the coming of Christ. The “coming” they had in mind was not Christ’s first coming … but His second coming as the Judge of the world (see Revelation). It was not until the Middle Ages when the Advent season was explicitly linked to Christ’s first coming … Christmas.
Today, the season of Advent lasts for four Sundays preceding Christmas. At that time, the new Christian year begins with the twelve-day celebration of Christmastide, which lasts from Christmas Eve until Epiphany on January 6th. Advent begins on the Sunday that falls between November 27th and December 3rd each year.
Advent symbolizes the present situation of the Church in these “last days” (Acts 2:17; Hebrews 1:2), as The People of God wait for the return of Christ in glory. It can be said that the Church today is in a similar situation than that of Israel at the end of Old Testament times — in exile, waiting and hoping in prayerful expectation for the coming of the Messiah Jesus. During Advent, the Church looks back upon Christ’s first coming in celebration while at the same time looking forward in eager anticipation to the second coming, that of Christ’s kingdom, when He will return for His people. The Advent hymn: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” beautifully and perfectly represents the Church’s cry during the Advent season:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appears.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
To balance the two elements of remembrance and anticipation, the first two Sunday’s in Advent (through Dec. 16th) look forward to Christ’s second coming, and the last two Sundays (Dec. 17th – 24th) look backward to remember Christ’s first coming. Over the course of four weeks, Scripture readings move from passages about Christ’s return in judgment … to Old Testament passages about the expectation of the coming Messiah … to New Testament passages about the announcements of Christ’s arrival by John the Baptist and the Angels.
While Advent is certainly a season of celebration, it is also one of fasting. We are called to fast, pray and reflect on the evil in the world — to cry out to God in repentance and in hope. Our exile in the present makes us look forward to our future Exodus. And our own sinfulness and need for God’s sanctifying grace leads us to pray for the Holy Spirit to continue his work in conforming us into the image and likeness of Christ. It is during this time our prayer must be: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30).
What about the wreath and candles?
The Advent wreath first appeared in Germany in 1839. Eventually, the Advent wreath would be created out of evergreens to symbolize everlasting life in the midst of winter and death. The circular shape of the wreath reminds us of God’s unending love and the everlasting life He makes possible through salvation. Advent candles can be red and white; the red being lit on weekdays and the four white candles being lit on Sundays. The red color points ahead to Jesus’ sacrifice and death. Pinecones symbolize the new life Jesus brings through His resurrection. Traditionally, families begin lighting a candle on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and light another candle each subsequent Sunday.
The most common Advent candle tradition, however, involves four candles. A new candle is lit on each of the four Sundays before Christmas. Each candle represents something different, although traditions vary. The four candles traditionally represent hope, faith, joy, and peace. Often, the first, second, and fourth candles are purple; the third candle is rose-colored. Sometimes all the candles are red; in other traditions, all four candles are blue or white. Occasionally, a fifth white candle is placed in the middle and is lit on Christmas Day to celebrate Jesus’ birth.
Advent and Christian Life
While Advent is indeed a time of celebration and anticipation of Christ’s birth, it is only in the shadow of Advent that the miracle of Christmas is fully understood and appreciated. Moreover, it is only in the light of Christmas that the Christian life makes any sense. The promise for Israel, the Church, and for all of us is, and forever will be, Jesus Christ. He has come, and He will come again in His glory. This is the essence of Advent.
Advent Readings and Prayer
Advent readings are broken down for each Sunday of Advent:
1) Hope (or promise)
2) Preparation (waiting or prophecy)
3) Joy (peace)
4) Love (adoration)
Prayer is a wonderful and most powerful way to open your heart and prepare for the joy and hope of Christ’s birth. Here is a sample prayer to use during the season to focus your heart and mind on the birth of Jesus Christ our Savior:
“This Advent, Lord, come to the manger of my heart.
Fill me with Your presence from the very start.
As I prepare for the holidays and gifts to be given,
remind me of the gift You gave when You sent Your Son from Heaven.
The first Christmas gift was the greatest gift ever.
You came as a baby born in a manger.
Wrapped like the gifts I find under my tree,
waiting to be opened, to reveal Your love to me.
Restore to me the wonder that came with Jesus’ birth,
when He left the riches of Heaven and wrapped Himself in rags of earth.
Immanuel, God with us, Your presence came that night.
And angels announced, “Into your darkness, God brings His Light.”
“Do not be afraid,” they said, to shepherds in the field.
Speak to my heart today, Lord, and help me to yield.
Make me like those shepherd boys, obedient to Your call.
Setting distractions and worries aside, to You I surrender them all.
Surround me with Your presence, Lord, I long to hear Your voice.
Clear my mind of countless concerns and all the holiday noise.
Slow me down this Christmas, let me not be in a rush.
In the midst of parties and planning, I want to feel Your hush.
This Christmas, Jesus, come to the manger of my heart.
Invade my soul like Bethlehem, bringing peace to every part.
Dwell within and around me, as I unwrap Your presence each day;
Keep me close to You, Lord, in this I will always pray.”
(“The Manger of My Heart” by Proverbs 31 Ministries)