THINGS OLD AND NEW
By Ruth Powers
Happy New Year! No, I’m not a month early: the first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of the new liturgical year for the church and begins a new cycle of feasts and readings for the year. Advent comes from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming” or “arrival.” It is a time observed by several Christian denominations to anticipate the coming of Christ in three different ways. First, it prepares us to celebrate the physical coming of Christ into the world at Bethlehem. Second, it prepares us to receive Christ into our hearts as believers. Finally, it reminds us to be alert and prepare for the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time when he will return in power and glory.
Many people observe Advent with such practices as keeping an Advent calendar, lighting an Advent wreath or praying an Advent devotional; but most Christians are unaware of how the practice of observing the season of Advent developed. There was no season of Advent until a definitive date for the celebration of the Nativity was set for Dec. 25, generally thought to be by Pope Julius I around 350 A.D. to correspond to and replace the pagan midwinter feast of Saturnalia. Earlier church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria placed the month of Jesus’ birth as April or May. The Dec. 25 date gradually spread throughout the Roman Empire and was brought to Northern Europe and the British Isles by Christian missionaries. In these areas, it often replaced other midwinter feasts such as Yule.
Once the date of Christmas was established, the first mention we see of a period of preparation for the feast was at the Council of Saragossa in 380. A four-week period was mentioned, but this was apparently localized to Spain. The practice of observing a period of preparation for the Nativity spread and remained highly variable for a very long time. It also varied from place to place. In many places, especially France and Germany, the preparation took the form of a forty-day period called St. Martin’s Lent, which began on the feast of St. Martin of Tours (Nov. 11) and concluded on Dec. 24. In other places, it began on Dec. 1. In the 6th century, St. Gregory the Great wrote an office for clergy which was to be said on the five Sundays leading up to Christmas, so he is credited by some as the originator of Advent. In addition, in some places only the clergy and monastics observed Advent, while in other places the laity observed it as well.
Practices for observing Advent were also highly variable. The first practice appears to be the preaching of special sermons in the weeks preceding the feast day. Some of these are still in existence, including ones attributed to St. Ambrose and St. Augustine in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. A little later, in the late fifth century, we begin to see mention of fasting as preparation for Christmas, with Advent becoming like a second Lent. Most of the practices many of us now associate with Advent, such as the Advent wreath or Advent calendars, did not develop until the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries.
Even though the liturgical season of Advent was formalized in the liturgical reforms of the Council of Trent, the laity’s observing of the season fell in and out of practice for several centuries. St. Charles Borromeo worked to revive the observance of Advent in his diocese of Milan in the late sixteenth century. Pope Benedict XIV in the mid-eighteenth century led a revival in the observance of Advent for the whole church. Finally, the reforms of Vatican II led to our current emphasis on the 3-fold preparation we see in our liturgy now.
So once again, Happy New Year! And let us remember to carve out time in the secular hustle and bustle of the season to prepare our hearts to welcome Jesus at the celebration of his birth and when he returns again.
(Ruth Powers is the Program Coordinator for St. Mary Basilica Parish in Natchez.)