What is Advent? I've heard that question a lot over the years. That's because Redeemer is so eclectic. The Lord has been kind and gracious to give us people from a variety of church backgrounds or no church background. So, when we celebrate Advent every year at Christmas time, naturally people may scratch their heads and wonder, "what is Advent?" Why do we celebrate it? And the list of questions goes on and on.
So, with that in mind, I hope that what follows will help define what advent is, how it started, and how it serves as a powerful reminder of God's redeeming grace!
The Advent Season
There is no single biblical event which Advent is based. It has no root in the Old Testament and no precedent in the Jewish faith. In the Christian faith, Advent is something of a later addition in history, as is the celebrating of Christmas itself.
Believers did not begin to celebrate Christmas as a distinct religious festival or holiday until the 4th or 5th century after the birth of Christ. When it did begin to be observed, it was done so in the month of December. In the year 529, Emperor Justinian declared December 25 a civic holiday; in 567 the Council of Tours established the season of Advent as a time of fasting preceding Christmas day. At this same council they proclaimed the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred season.
When the church began to celebrate Christmas in the 4th century there were two distinct traditions that emerged. Christians in northern and western Europe (Germany, France, Spain, and the Netherlands) instituted a season of seven or more weeks that was designed to culminate in the Feast of Epiphany. (Epiphany celebrates Christ's first appearance to the Gentiles when he was worshipped by the wisemen. Epiphany is the twelfth day of Christmas and is celebrated on January 6th each year.). At the Feast of Epiphany new converts would be baptized and joined the church. Fasting (refraining from eating certain foods or meals) was a central feature of this season, as well as a penitential attitude (sorrow for sin, refraining from joyful celebrations such as weddings, amusements, and other pleasures).
A different tradition emerged in Rome and portions of southern Europe. A short, joyous season of anticipation marked their preparation for the birth of Christ. Beginning in the 8th century, and continuing for several hundred years, a merging of the two traditions took place. The final structure of the Advent season combined features of both traditions. Rome adopted the fasting and penitential character of Advent while maintaining an emphasis upon joyful celebration. The northern Europeans shortened their observance to the four weeks that Rome practiced, no longer extending it through Epiphany. This compromise was concluded in the 13th century and has remained largely unchanged today.
Within the liturgical calendar, Advent marks the beginning of the church year. The first Sunday in Advent is the one occurring nearest, or on, November 30. While always including four Sundays, the season may vary in length from 22 to 28 days, concluding on Christmas Eve.
For example, we've chosen to observe 5 Sundays at Redeemer concluding the season on the Sunday, on or, after Christmas.
Advent has come to us through the Latin "advenire" meaning "coming" or "arrival," referring, of course, to the coming or arrival of Jesus Christ. If there is one theme that runs throughout it is the joyful recognition of what God has accomplished and the anticipation of how He will yet fulfill His promises to the church.
Why do we celebrate Advent? Our observance of Advent in the liturgical year helps us to mark this time as sacred. With so many "trappings" associated with Christmas, observing Advent helps us to re-focus our gaze on the joyous coming of Christ -- our Redeemer, our Savior, our Friend. To be honest, we do it as a deliberate "downplay" of the consumerism and commercialism that dominates our day so that we can deliberately lift high the more dominant story of all history -- God coming in the flesh to rescue the souls of men! We don't need more gadgets or gizmos, we need more grace! So Advent teaches us that there's something money can't buy. Advent teaches us that there's a deeper, more fundamental longing that only God come in the flesh can satisfy. So, Advent gives us the distinct opportunity to declare that grace, limitless, measureless, inexaustible grace has come. And it comes to do two things: 1) to show us where we have misplaced our hope, joy, and life and 2) to fill us with true hope, true joy, and true life -- only God come in the flesh, only Advent can do that! So, celebrate Advent, celebrate God come in the flesh, celebrate the amazing grace that is offered you this Christmas!