Whitefield Academy Blog
The Advent Season: What Chocolate Calendars Miss
This post was originally published on Whitefield’s blog in December of 2017.
If you are not familiar with the church calendar, you may be surprised to find that the Christmas season, or Christmastide, does not actually begin until December twenty-fifth and then proceeds for twelve days until the Epiphany. The season before Christmas is called Advent. Of course, the season of Advent is vitally connected to Christmas, so I recognize I am being somewhat pedantic. Nevertheless, I think we could benefit from some reflection on the meaning the church throughout history has assigned to the Advent season as opposed to the Christmas season.
Advent Calendar Quibbles
One way many people are familiar with Advent is through the ubiquitous grocery store Advent calendar, which creates a fun and often chocolate-y way for children to count the days until Christmas. These usually start on December first, which creates the misconception that Advent starts on that day. Actually, the season of Advent begins of the fourth Sunday before Christmas (December 3rd this year). Of course, this means Advent will have a different number of days depending on which day of the week Christmas falls, and this is probably the reason for the twenty-five-day Advent calendars.
Anticipation and Repentance
One obvious parallel for Advent is Lent, the six weeks preceding Easter. Lent is a time of penitence and fasting; this is the origin of the modern tradition of “giving up” luxuries and vices during Lent. During the Reformation, Protestant Reformers saw the buildup of laws about Lenten fasting as superstitious and contrary to Christ’s commands regarding fasting and Christian liberty, so strict fasting rules are no longer practiced by most Protestants. But we can continue to appreciate the idea of times of the year where we focus on repenting of sin and devoting additional time to prayer and fasting.
Advent, to a lesser degree than Lent, has been considered in Christian history to be a time of fasting and repentance. While the Lenten fast looks to Jesus’ forty days of fasting in the wilderness, the Advent “nativity fast” takes John the Baptist’s ascetic lifestyle, eating locusts and honey and living in the desert, as its model. John was preparing the way for Jesus to come by baptizing people, a sign of repentance and new life. While fasting during Advent is no longer practiced in the Roman Catholic Church or by Protestants, Eastern Orthodox Christians continue to abstain from various foods, including meat, during Advent.
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and the “O Antiphons”
One of my favorite Advent hymns, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” has a long and rich history. The hymn (itself very old) derives its words from a series of early chants called the “O Antiphons.” These antiphons, sometimes simply called “The Great Os” have been in use at least as early as the sixth-century Christian philosopher Boethius, who makes mention of them in one of his writings. Each of the antiphons ties a title of Christ to a prophesy of Isaiah. For example, the hymn stanza which begins “O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high,” paraphrases the following antiphon:
O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
The antiphon relates Christ’s title of “Morning Star,” to Isaiah’s familiar prophesy that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
Readings During Advent
One Advent tradition which has survived to the present day in many Christian churches and households is the reading of Scripture specially selected for the Advent season. Even in churches where a series of readings based on the church year is not maintained, during Advent it is common to read certain portions of Scripture on Advent Sundays. Usually these will simply be readings from Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, but sometimes they will also draw from Advent’s meaning as a time to anticipate Christ’s second coming at the end of history. For example, users of the Revised Common Lectionary, a set of readings for the whole church year, will read Isaiah 64:1–9 on the first Sunday of Advent, which begins “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” At first glance this seems like a strange way to begin the season of anticipation of Christmas, but it vividly brings to mind the longing Christians today have for Christ’s coming again to gather his church.
Bernard of Clairvaux and Christ’s “Three Comings”
Most commonly, Advent is said to have a double meaning: anticipation of Christ’s first and second comings. In the twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux suggested that Advent may be thought of as a time to reflect on three comings of Christ: his coming in flesh at Christmas, his second coming at the end of time, and a third invisible coming to the individual Christian, referring to Jesus’ words in John 14:23, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” Reflecting on what Bernard referred to as Christ’s “middle coming,” which acts as a pathway between the first and second comings, makes Advent a time of personal commitment to God.
Throughout this Advent season, our family will enjoy reflecting upon two thousand years of believers anticipating the celebration of Christ’s first coming as we all together anticipate his second coming.
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