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What Is Advent and Why Does It Matter?

What Is Advent and Why Does It Matter?

Sunday, December 3 marks the beginning of Advent for 2023. But what exactly is Advent, and why does it matter?

Advent comes from the Latin adventus, which means “coming.” In simple terms, Advent is the period on the church calendar directly preceding Christmas.

Within the Christian worldview, Advent is a special time of preparation and expectation for the coming of Jesus Christ, whose birth is celebrated at Christmas. While not everybody finds themselves drawn to the liturgical calendar, I’ve recently gained a newfound respect for the traditions that once kept our civilization grounded and sane—even if they can feel a little stodgy at times.

One thing is certain: However individuals, families, and churches choose to mark the season, Advent is one of the most sacred times of the year.

The Origins of Advent

It is impossible to know when Advent first began being celebrated. Even so, once Christians recognized December 25 as the date of Christmas, the celebration of Christ’s birth became “the center of gravity for the later half of the year—a perfect balance to Easter in the first half,” according to Professor of Historical Theology Ryan Reeves. “In this way,” Reeves adds, “advent took on significance the same way Lent did: both were preparation for the more significant season on the horizon.”

Mentions of the Advent season are found in writings from as early as the fourth century (around the time of the Council of Sargossa in A.D. 380, which took place in Spain). Further references to Advent were made in connection with Bishop Perpetuus of Tours (A.D. 461–490) and the Council of Tours (A.D. 567). Saint Gregory the Great played an important role in shaping Advent as a key liturgical season, and firm dating of the Advent season appeared in the fifth and sixth centuries.

Ultimately, Advent came to mark the beginning of the liturgical year in Western Christianity, where the four-week season begins on the Sunday nearest to November 30 and lasts until December 24.

The Meaning of Advent

In general Christian thought, Advent is a time for reflection, spiritual growth, and heartfelt preparation for the arrival or “advent” of Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah.

According to Scripture, the arrival of Jesus in the manger at Bethlehem was not an out-of-the-blue event. In the months leading up to His birth, both Jesus’ mother Mary and His human (or adoptive) father Joseph received angelic visions to prepare them for Jesus’ arrival (Luke 1:26–38 and Matthew 1:20–21).

In fact, for centuries, numerous predictions had been made about the arrival of a Messiah. Biblical prophets like Isaiah and Zechariah had provided detailed visions of who this Promised King would be and what He would accomplish. King David also wrote many oracles about the expected Messiah in the Psalms.

By the time Jesus arrived, at least one hundred individual details about His life had been foretold in dozens of prophecies—including that He would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2) to a virgin (Isaiah 7:14) and that He would be both executed (Isaiah 53:8–9) and raised from the dead (Psalm 16:10).

Thus, Advent is first of all a time in which Christians recall and relive the longing, watchful wait for the Messiah’s arrival in the person of Jesus.

As the tradition developed, Advent came to be invested with at least three layers of meaning—or more precisely, three layers of anticipation for the coming of Christ: (1) the physical nativity in Bethlehem; (2) the reception of Christ in the heart of the believer; and (3) the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time. As such, Advent connects the past, present, and future aspects of Christianity.

How Advent Is Celebrated

People from almost every Christian background celebrate Advent. Marking an Advent calendar, lighting an Advent wreath, reading Advent-themed Scriptures, holding special church services, singing carols, and setting up a Christmas tree are among the most common ways people celebrate the season. And indeed, even many secular people mark the season, forgoing a focus on Jesus’ arrival to instead see the tradition as a fun way of counting down the days until Christmas.

The modern Advent calendar came into existence in the mid-19th century when German families began counting down the days to Christmas by tallying chalk marks on a door or wall. Some families also lit candles, hung Christmas-themed artwork, or made their own Advent calendars at home. By the early 20th century, publishing companies began producing simple printed calendars from which many more modern varieties have sprung.

The Advent wreath also originated in Germany in the 19th century. The Christian site Crosswalk recounts this:

A Lutheran minister working at a mission for children created a wreath out of the wheel of a cart. He placed twenty small red candles and four large white candles inside the ring. The red candles were lit on weekdays and the four white candles were lit on Sundays.

Eventually, the Advent wreath was created out of evergreens, symbolizing everlasting life in the midst of winter and death as the evergreen is continuously green.

Today, Advent wreaths commonly have just four candles (one for each week of Advent) along with a fifth candle called the Christ candle that is lit on Christmas Eve. In some traditions—the Lutheran Church particularly—the candles represent hope, love, joy, peace, and the anticipation of Christ’s birth respectively.

The Lasting Value of Advent

In the Christian worldview, Advent points to something far beyond its colorful traditions, whether secular or sacred: It lifts us up above the mundane tick-tock of earthly time and locates us on an eternal continuum. Advent places us between Christ’s first and final coming, reminding us that our world will not simply continue on as it is ad infinitum.

It is curious that many modern celebrations of Advent tend to shy away from a focus on Jesus’ return. A strange mix of fear and unbelief in the modern age causes many to avoid the religious tones of the season. A baby born 2,000 years ago feels much more tame—and much less threatening—to our sensibilities today.

What many of us moderns also fail to recognize is that Jesus’ first arrival was not tame at all. It was extremely threatening to the power structures of the day—threatening enough to prompt King Herod to enact a genocide against every newborn in his province and to ultimately see Jesus crucified.

According to committed Christians, then, just as surely as Christ came the first time, so He will come again. And just as surely as Jesus’ first and second comings represent a breaking-in of God into a weary world, so at Advent, God longs to break into weary hearts with His tidings of great joy.

Let every heart prepare Him room!

Image credit: Unsplash

Kurt Mahlburg
Kurt Mahlburg

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