Advent's double meaning

The official document on the Roman Calendar states: Advent has a twofold character: as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ’s first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. (39)

The Christian word “Advent” comes from adventus, the name of a pagan feast held to celebrate the manifestation of the divinity who came to dwell in the temple at a certain time each year. On these days the temple, which was usually closed, would be opened. Often a statue of the divinity would be moved from its usual location in a small sanctuary into a larger, more elaborate space. The focus of adventus was the celebration of an anniversary, of a returning. Translated into the setting of the Roman empire, adventus marked the anniversary of the coming of the emperor.

A shift in the meaning of the word came about when the feasts of Christmas – Epiphany were instituted to celebrate the manifestation of God in the flesh. At first adventus was used to refer to the second coming of the Son of God in the temple of his flesh – his return. Gradually it became limited to describing the anniversary of the birth of Christ and the Christian celebrations replaced pagan festivals associated with the adventus, return of the sun at the winter solstice.

This ancient understanding of adventus underlies the prayers of Advent that evoke “the coming” of the Lord. Some even use the temple imagery:

At the message of an angel
Mary welcomed your eternal Son
and, filled with the light of your Spirit,
she became the temple of your Word.
(Opening Prayer, Mass of December 20)

For most Christians, Advent is a time to prepare for Christmas, which celebrates the first coming of the Lord. The scripture and prayers used in the Advent liturgy, however, give evidence of a much broader perspective.

While the readings of the fourth Sunday of Advent are centred on the birth of the Lord at Bethlehem, the other weeks have a different focus. On the third Sunday, the strong voice of John the Baptist calls us to prepare the way of the Lord for his coming, a call which is by no means limited to the idea of Christ’s birth.

The readings on the first two Sundays quite explicitly situate Advent within a much larger context. The prophetic oracles glimpse the day when the Lord will call together all nations in the eternal peace of the kingdom of God, when God will judge the poor with justice, when God will manifest his glory.

The perspective presented by the opening prayers of Mass in Advent is one of judgement and the life to come. For example:

God of power and mercy, open our hearts in welcome. Remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy, so that we may share his wisdom and become one with him when he comes in glory. (Second Sunday).

The Sunday liturgy celebrates Advent in its double meaning of both awaiting the second coming of the Lord and the immediate preparation for the feast of Christmas.


Elizabeth Harrington