Advent is the period of four Sundays and weeks before Christmas (or sometimes from the 1st December to Christmas Day!). Advent means ‘Coming’ in Latin. This is the coming of Jesus into the world. Christians use the four Sundays and weeks of Advent to prepare and remember the real meaning of Christmas.
There are three meanings of ‘coming’ that Christians describe in Advent. The first, and most thought of, happened about 2000 years ago when Jesus came into the world as a baby to live as a man and die for us. The second can happen now as Jesus wants to come into our lives now. And the third will happen in the future when Jesus comes back to the world as King and Judge, not a baby.
Advent Sunday can be from the 27th November (which it was in 2016) to the 3rd December (which it was in 2017)! Advent only starts on the 1st December when Christmas Day is on a Wednesday (which will happen in 2019)! However, this year (2020) Advent begins on November 29.
No one is really sure when Advent was first celebrated but it dates back to at least 567 when monks were ordered to fast during December leading up to Christmas.
Some people fast (don’t eat anything) during advent to help them concentrate on preparing to celebrate Jesus’s coming. In many Orthodox and Eastern Catholics Churches, Advent lasts for 40 days and starts on November 15th and is also called the Nativity Fast. (Advent also starts on November 15th in Celtic Christianity.)
Orthodox Christians often do not eat meat and dairy during Advent, and depending on the day, also olive oil, wine and fish.
There are some Christmas Carols that are really Advent Carols! These include ‘People Look East’, ‘Come, thou long expected Jesus’, ‘Lo! He comes, with clouds descending’ and perhaps the most popular Advent song ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel!’
Advent symbolizes the present situation of the church in these “last days” (Acts 2:17, Hebrews 1:2), as God’s people wait for the return of Christ in glory to consummate his eternal kingdom. The church is in a similar situation to Israel at the end of the Old Testament: in exile, waiting and hoping in prayerful expectation for the coming of the Messiah. Israel looked back to God’s past gracious actions on their behalf in leading them out of Egypt in the Exodus, and on this basis, they called for God once again to act for them. In the same way, the church, during Advent, looks back upon Christ’s coming in celebration while at the same time looking forward in eager anticipation to the coming of Christ’s kingdom when he returns for his people. In this light, the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” perfectly represents the church’s cry during the Advent season:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appears.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
To balance the two elements of remembrance and anticipation, the first two Sundays in Advent look forward to Christ’s second coming, and the last two Sundays look backward to remember Christ’s first coming. Over the course of the four weeks, Scripture readings move from passages about Christ’s return in judgment to Old Testament passages about the expectation of the coming Messiah to New Testament passages about the announcements of Christ’s arrival by John the Baptist and the Angels.
There are several ways that Advent is counted down but the most common is by a calendar or candle(s).
There are two types of candle(s) that are used to count down to Christmas Day in Advent. The first looks like a normal candle, but has the days up to Christmas Day marked down the candle. On the first of December the candle is lit and burnt down to the first line on the candle. The same is done every day and then the rest of the candle is burnt on Christmas day. I use one of these candles to count down during Advent.
An Advent Crown is another form of candles that are used to count down Advent. These are often used in Churches rather than in people’s homes. The crown is often made up of a wreath of greenery and has four candles round the outside and one in the middle or in a separate place. Sometimes a more traditional candelabra is used to display the five candles.
One candle is lit on the first Sunday of Advent, two are lit on the second Sunday and so on. Each candle has a different meaning in Christianity. Different churches have given them different meanings, but I was taught the following:
• The first represents Isaiah and other prophets in the Bible that predicted the coming of Jesus.
• The second represents the Bible.
• The third represents Mary, the mother of Jesus.
• The fourth represents John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, who told the people in Israel to get ready for Jesus’ teaching.
The middle or separate candle is lit on Christmas Day and represents Jesus, the light of the world. In many churches, the color purple is used to signify the season of Advent. On the third Sunday, representing Mary, the color is sometimes changed to pink or rose.