Important Christian themes for the Advent season

Father John A. Kiley
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The annual liturgical season of Advent, observed during the four weeks preceding the Solemnity of Christmas, has long suffered in the shadow of the older and longer liturgical season, Lent. Advent (from the Latin word for “coming’’) has long been observed as a period of expectation for the coming of Christ in the flesh on the solemnity of Christmas. At one time, in direct imitation of Lent, Advent’s length was extended to a Lent-like forty days, beginning on November 11, the feast of St. Martin of Tours and locally called St. Martin’s Lent. The Church has had a long tradition of fasting before feasts, even if the fast extended only to the vigil of the feast. Lent, for many centuries, was a period of severe fasting. Again, so that Advent might not suffer in comparison to Lent, fasting and some penance were expected during the season’s four weeks. However Advent’s rigors never rivalled those of Lent. Purple vestments and the omission of the Glory to God at Mass also contributed to the popular notion of Advent as a mini-Lent. Gaudete Sunday with its rose vestments was certainly added to the season in imitation of Lent’s Laetare Sunday which was meant to give hope to those strictly observing Lenten and then Advent fasts.

More and more lately however, Advent, to the lament of some, has become a time of practical preparation for Christmas. Even in Christian homes, wreaths, lights, trees and Christmas figures, the merrier aspects of Christmas, are on display earlier and earlier in the season. Commercial Christmas displays are on store shelves as soon as the pumpkins and goblins of Halloween are retired. Neither Advent nor Christmas was popular in the early years of Protestant America. These observances were considered too Catholic, too Roman, too Papist.

The celebration of Advent and Christmas came into its own in the fifth century after the early Ecumenical Councils declared dogmatically that Jesus Christ was indeed the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, born at Bethlehem. Celebrating the birth of the God/Man never rivalled the Church’s Easter observances but gradually Christmas and its introduction Advent increased in both liturgical and popular observance. Additional Church declarations on the Blessed Virgin Mary as the true mother of God — the Theotokos, the God-bearer — enhanced the importance of Christmas and Advent as liturgical seasons worthy of observance and festivity. By the eighth century seasonal prayers for Advent and Christmas showed up in liturgical books.

The liturgically astute will appreciate the late Advent weekdays from December 17 through the 24 during which the celebrated and venerable “O antiphons” are sung at Mass and at vespers. These eight versicles are handily found in the popular hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” They celebrate Christ as Wisdom, Lord, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Sun, King, and Emmanuel. Popularly the orchestral and choral presentation of Handel’s Messiah has become, if not an Advent, then at least a pre-Christmas ritual for much of the English-speaking world. In the United States, Advent wreaths with circular boughs and four candles lit on successive Sundays became fashionable in the middle of the last century. The Advent wreath is most appropriate for home observance. Its use in church, especially during Mass, has been liturgically somewhat subdued since the wreath’s first American appearance in the 1950s. Like the Christmas tree, the Advent Wreath has German roots.

The Latin word Advent as universally used in the Western Church for the time before Christmas might well be joined to the Greek word Parousia, which also means coming. Advent popularly refers to the first coming of Christ at his nativity at Bethlehem. Parousia, on the other hand, usually refers to the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time.

Advent looks backward to Christ coming as Messiah. Parousia looks forward to Christ coming as judge. Both are appropriate themes for Advent. Still others suggest that the daily coming of Christ into the believer’s life through grace and through the Eucharist is a worthy theme for the season. Christ’s triple comings — as Messiah, as Eucharist, as Judge — are all worthy of prayerful consideration during Advent.