History of Advent
We have entered the season of Advent, considered the first season of the Christian Year. Historically the season of Advent began in the 4th century AD. Up to that point, Christians had focused on the festivals of Easter and Pentecost celebrating the Resurrection of Christ, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. The dates of these were determined by the dates of the Jewish feasts of Passover and Pentecost. Christians also wanted to celebrate Jesus’ birth, but scripture doesn’t tell us when it was. The Romans celebrated a feast of Saturnalia near the winter solstice, so Christians undergoing persecution by the Roman authorities began to observe that date (December 25) as the date of Christ’s birth. After all, the solstice was a celebration that the longest night had occurred and now light was growing. What more appropriate time to celebrate the birth of the Light of the World?
In the Greek-speaking world of the 3rd century, the celebration of the baptism of Christ took place on the 6th of January. This had to do with a liturgical reading of the gospels that assigned the passages on baptism to the 6th. This was also known as epiphany, which meant a manifestation, or a revealing, as Jesus was revealed as the Messiah at his baptism. But the revelation known as Epiphany also became associated with the birth of Christ (when He was revealed to the shepherds) and the arrival of the magi (when He was revealed to the pagan world). One theologian declared that all of these events occurred on January 6th. Over the centuries these celebrations diverged in the eastern and western church. The Eastern Orthodox Church observes the birth of Christ on January 6, while the Roman Catholic Church recognizes the birth of Christ on December 25th, and the coming of the magi on January 6th, with the Christmas season stretching between the two dates (the 12 days of Christmas).
But back to Advent: the season before Easter was known as Lent, and it was a period of intense study by converts to Christianity before they formally professed their faith before the congregation by baptism, usually on Palm Sunday. It was a period when they worked closely with long time members of the congregation to learn the faith. It involved fasting and prayer as well as study. But when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380, only 15 % of the Empire’s population were Christian. Now there were large numbers of people wanting to become Christians at one time, far more than could be trained during a single Lenten season. So another period of preparation was formed, originally 6-8 weeks before Christmas, with new converts joining the Church on Epiphany.
The focus was slightly different than Lent which focused on Jesus’ suffering for us, and the new life promised in His resurrection. The new season focused on the coming of Christ and the new, eternal life with Him in the heavenly Kingdom. This was not so much the birth of Jesus, but the awaited coming of the Christ in judgment and victory. Because the focus now was on this coming, the season was called Advent (from the Latin meaning “coming to”). As the immediate need for a time of intensive training in Christianity waned once the initial influx of new Christians had become part of the church, the focus of Advent changed from preparing for Church membership to preparing the lives of Christians for being ready for His coming. The season was shortened to the four weeks preceding Christmas.
But in the last two centuries, our culture has tried to make Christmas a secular season of commerce. American culture sees this season as the essential business time, when stores and businesses make most of their money for the year. Let us this season, return to our roots making this a time of preparation for the coming of Christ into our lives. Do we welcome Him daily? Are we ready to face judgment when He returns? Do our lives truly reflect the Christ we claim lives in us through the Spirit? Does our witness to our faith invite others into a relationship with Him? All of these are things to consider in the waning of the calendar year before we celebrate the first entry of the Light into our world.