Episco-Fact #117
November 29, 2018

What is the history of Advent and what can families and individuals do to observe it?

We do not really know the origins of Advent: when, where, how, or why. Certainly, it was not observed as a season in the life of the Church until a date was fixed for the birth of Jesus, something which happened in the late 4th Century BCE. There is no Biblical warrant for even the time of year in which Jesus was born, so the choice of December 25, the date of the winter solstice, has a poetic logic as Christ comes into the world, bringing the light of God with him, just as the calendar of Northern Europe anticipates increasing daylight hours from the solstice on.

We begin to see information about Advent after Christmas is fixed. It is known to Gregory, Bishop of Tours, in the late 5th Century, as well as to Pope Gregory I, the Great, whose writings contain a sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Advent. A Synod in Gaul during the late 6th Century records the establishment of six Sundays of preparation for Christmas as a penitential season with fasts to be observed on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The reduction to five weeks of penitence was observed in the areas of Northern Italy and Rome beginning in the 7th Century. Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) reduces the number of Sundays to four during his Papacy, and the Roman Rite, along with its calendar, ultimately replaces local rites throughout Northern Europe.

Advent there are two foci. The first focus of Advent (Latin for "arrival;" equivalent to the Greek "Parousia.") concerns the 2nd Coming, which will establish the rule of God on earth through his appointed representative, Jesus. The readings for the first part of Advent originally dealt with this, as does our own 1st Sunday of Advent. The second focus is the embodiment of the second person of the Trinity in Jesus at Bethlehem. In each case, especially the Nativity, the theology is not about reenactment, rather it is about the fulfilment of God's will from the birth of Jesus until he returns again.

As far as spiritual and liturgical practices around Advent, ceremonies in worship are decidedly of the optional nature. Though some churches make a ritual of the lighting of the Advent Wreath Candles, there is no instruction except as it pertains to the service of Evening Prayer or the Order for Evening Worship. There is, however, a rich tradition centered on Advent Carols, readings of scripture commensurate with the themes of the season, and the decorations of purple or violet. There is also the service of Advent Lessons and Carols, a tradition we will observe at 4 PM on Sunday, December 2.

There are some personal practices which do encourage reflection and focus at this time. Advent wreaths in the home are a wonderful reminder of the season. Using them as dinner table centerpiece is encouraged with the lighting to be accompanied by prayers, either the collect for the appropriate week of Advent, or using the Family Devotions for the Early Evening, page 139 BCP, or even a reading from the lectionary for the season.

These and other practices will be the subject of next week's Episco-fact, as well as a sermon from the Sunday School on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 16.