What Is Advent?
The journey from Advent 1 to Epiphany unfolds as all good stories should, step by step, so we don't get too stunned by the awesome truth it bears. There's enough direct truth there to keep us on track and focused on it, and enough mystery and open room to fire the imagination -- from ordinary imaginations like mine, to great imaginations like T.S. Eliot and Dr. Seuss, to transcendent imaginations like your average 6-year old. And in 2016, Advent starts on Sunday, November 27. That means Advent 2 is on December 4, Advent 3 is on December 11, and Advent 4 is on December 18. (The number means the week, thus Advent 2 is shorthand for "Second Sunday in Advent" or "Second Week of Advent", and so on.) Epiphany (also known as 'Three Kings Day') will be on Friday, 06 January 2016. Most Western churches celebrate it on the nearest Sunday, 08 January 2017. The Eastern Orthodox use a Julian calendar and their Advent is 40 days, starting on 15 November 2016.
The word 'advent' is Latin for 'a coming or arrival'. The idea behind it is that God came to earthly life and lived among us, which is news to stop the presses for. It's something to celebrate, rejoice, because just by being in it, God was giving the supreme blessing to the created world. But this birth led to an execution of this same God, by us on behalf of us, and then the greatest news that death will not end it all. So it's not something you just go rushing into. We need to take stock of what that baby Jesus was here for. When we go all goo-goo over the baby and the birth, the adult Jesus and His execution are also in sight.
Advent is a season of preparation. So's Lent, but it is a different kind of preparation. In Lent, each of us prepares for what happened on Good Friday (execution) and Easter (resurrection). Lent is very adult and serious, because it leads to a death. Originally, Lent readied new Christian adults for baptism. In Advent, we're preparing for a birth. We thank God for Christ's first coming, prepare for his final coming at the end of time, and celebrate Christ's presence among us today through the Spirit. God loved us and wanted to share that love. But this existence isn't well-suited for a god; it's too broken, evil, painful, unjust. So, to rescue the created world from this evil, God chose to come here and walk the earth, to grow up, to live the truth, and to die. The only way to start such a thing is as a baby, and the only way to be a baby is to be born. Hence Christmas. Because Christmas is centered in the new hope brought by a baby, it's very much a holiday for children, and became all the more so with the cultural development of toys as Christmas gifts. Because it leads us up to that baby, the season is also child-oriented.
There's a time to get ready by focusing on your own sinfulness and wrongdoing, a time for personal transformation and following Christ to the cross. That's Lent. There's a time to get ready by rejoicing that our God is not far away and unfamiliar with the struggles of human life, that Christ is here right now among His followers, that God has already begun to bring in the Kingdom, and that Christ will come again to make it clear who really runs the place. That's Advent. "Lo, I am with you, even unto the end of the age", says Jesus.
The History of Advent
Advent, as we know it today, is a creation of the Western churches that looked to Rome for leadership. There were two main streams flowing into it. The first came out of France, during the fourth century AD, probably from Celtic monks. A period of about six weeks before Christ's Mass was used as a penitential and devotional period, a lesser Lent. The second stream came from Rome, where there was a practice of having a three-to-six week fast during which they had to come to church regularly. This was a fast before the feast of Christmas time.
The current form of Advent crystallized under Pope Gregory I, who set the current four-week length, and wrote seasonal liturgical materials. By the 10th century, the Celtic 'get ready' prayers and practices had been fully brought into the Roman form. Later on, the church adopted a system of liturgical colors, and Advent received a purple color not unlike Lent's. The 20th century brought a rediscovery of joy in seasonal preparations. This was signaled among Protestants by using the color blue (with or without a touch of red in it).
Some highly-Catholic areas hold special services on the nine days before Christmas (starting 16 December), as a worship novena. These services may have started in the 1580s in Mexico, in an outdoor Christ's Mass called Misa de Aguinaldo. In the Philippines, the novena masses are called Simbang Gabi.
The Eastern Orthodox have a preparation for Christmas, too, called the Nativity Fast. It starts the day after the 14 November St. Philip the Apostle's Feast, and goes 40 days until 24 December. It's much more like Western-Church Lent than Advent, though it is not as strict as the Orthodox's Great Lent. Like in Lent, the Nativity Fast's purpose is to prepare through repentance, and it is a somber period. It is not somber on the Forefeast of the Nativity (20-23 December), when Nativity hymns are sung every day, and when the Russian Orthodox put up happy hangings and symbols in their churches. (This is when the Orthodox holy season feels most like the Catholic or Protestant Advent.) The strictest day is 24 December, Christmas Eve, the Nativity Paramony, when no solid food is eaten until after the Vespers service that evening.
Advent has fallen on hard times. For most people, it's become a time to get ready for whatever you're doing with family and friends on Christmas, and not a time to get ready for the Christ child. The bigger Christmas became, the more it swallowed up Advent. In fact, whatever Christmas-y thing we think of as being done before Christmas Day is actually done in Advent. In the US, everything after Thanksgiving is now seen as a part of Christmas. The main problem is not that Christmas intrudes on Advent or the other way around. The meaning of Advent is found in Christmas. The real problem is that people no longer keep their Christmas focus on Christ, and then their Christless Christmas saps Christ from Advent. Practicing it as a unified religious season may help recover Christmas, but it can't do it by itself. If you don't look to Jesus every day in every season, you'll lose Advent, Christmas, Lent, and even Easter. It becomes a tiring drudge, not a loving celebration, full of hurrying not anticipation. It becomes about family or money or image or spending and not our loving Maker. There are even some who openly advocate letting the world have its "Happy Holiday" at Christmas, and then Christians can do their own separate thing on Epiphany. (That would bring them nearly in synch with the old-calendar Orthodox.) But that chucks Advent as well as Christmas.
Christmas is a day of joy, and much of what the non-Christian culture brings to the mix is also full of joy and thus fits well into a Christian context. If you've been to Rockefeller Center in New York City, you know how great the decorations can be -- the Christmas tree, the lights on the buildings, the large herald angels with their trumpets, all big enough to seem to an adult like the big world itself seems to a child. Such wonders fully belong in the celebrations of Christians and everyone else. But as you think on that, remember that each Christian has as much right as anyone else to put their stamp on the public culture - that's an important matter of our human freedom, and it needs to be vigorously exercised or it too will be lost.
Active Christians do special things to mark the holy purposes of the Advent season. Many churches have Wednesday night services like those during Lent, only with a lot more praise, joy, and song. Those who come are often invited to confess their sins before a priest or minister and then celebrate release from those sins, or to join in group prayers afterward. Choirs practice music in a more-classical vein, especially Handel's Messiah. Chapels and prayer rooms open longer. In 'liturgical' churches, there's always some arguing between worship leaders and laity about whether Christmas hymns can be sung during Advent. The usual compromise is that the Christmas songs start coming in one or two Sundays before Christmas.
In the U.S., most people start their Christmas after Thanksgiving Day (the fourth Thursday of November), though retailers try to move it up to the start of November for profit's sake. (Here in 2016, more stores than ever have Christmasized November.) Thanksgiving Day is actually quite appropriate for the season, even though it is a few days before it starts. Advent is a preparation, and the best way to start preparing is with a thankful heart.
In Advent, as in the rest of the year, Christians remember leading figures in their history. The primary saint of the season is Nicholas of Myra (modern Demre, Turkey), on 06 December. It was celebration of his day and his reputation for giving gifts to children which bred the name and task of Santa Claus. He apparently had very wealthy parents who died in one of the epidemics that were common back then. He got the inheritance, but started giving it away to the poor, the sick, children, and sailors. He was jailed for several years by the Emperor (as were most Christian leaders - if they weren't killed). When he was released, he was quite thin, but went right back to his giving ways. He was one of the bishops at the Council of Nicaea in 325. He died in 343 AD. Lucia (13 December) is marked by the baking and eating of special cakes, and a celebration of all sorts of lights (mainly pagan in origin, and ultimately rooted in the aurora borealis). Though she was Sicilian, her day is much celebrated in Scandinavia. Ambrose of Milan (07 December) was a bishop, an intellectual, and a key figure in shaping beliefs about Christ. The feast day for Daniel and the 3 Young Men (17 December) is of special significance to Orthodox and Eastern-rite churches. The disciple Thomas has his day on 21 December; it's a good day to think and pray about discerning, testing, and asking questions about what is happening around us, especially what's being taught about God.
The day after Christmas (26 December) is the day of the first Christian martyr, Stephen; it was placed right after Christmas amidst our joy to remind us of those who died to bring it to us. In some traditions, Stephen's feast day is when they visit extended family and friends. In England, St. Stephen's Day is known as Boxing Day, which was originally the day that the churches opened up their holiday collection boxes and distributed the contents to the poor and needy. Boxing Day is also a time for pantomime, acting out traditional stories with stock characters.
Page 2: cultural and religious practices of the Advent/Christmas season.