History and Meaning of Advent


Surely it can’t be only four weeks until Christmas, yet today the green of Ordinary Time has made way for the mauve of the Advent season.

This time of year evokes a variety of thoughts and feelings for different people – holiday plans, the pre-Christmas shopping frenzy, Advent wreaths and calendars, happy homecomings, family tensions, and son on.

What is the purpose of this phase of the Church’s liturgical calendar?

The Roman Document on the Liturgical Year describes Advent as having “a twofold character: as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ’s first coming to us is remembered and as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ’s second coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation”. (GNLY 39)

This two-part nature of Advent is reflected in its two quite distinct stages, each with its own special focus. From the first Sunday until December 16, the liturgy of Advent expresses “eschatological expectation”, that is, the watchfulness of God’s people looking forward to the time when “the salvation promised us will be ours when Christ our Lord will come again in his glory”. (Preface of Advent I)

From December 17 until Christmas eve, the prayers and readings for Mass prepares us more directly to celebrate Christ’s birth. This is the time for singing Christmas carols, when they will enhance the liturgical themes of the season.

It often happens that schools and parish groups hold Christmas services during Advent. Advent as a period of expectation and preparation is closely related to, yet distinct from, the feast of Christmas for which it prepares. Songs, carols and devotions which focus on the nativity itself are out of place in Advent, especially before December 17. The time for such celebrations is the Christmas season which begins (not ends, as the commercials would have us believe!) on December 25 and continues through until January 9, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord – a whole 16 days of festivity!

Advent is a relatively late addition to the liturgical calendar. The early Church had only one annual feast, Easter, which celebrated the whole mystery of Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection.

Over several centuries Christian communities began to celebrate a feast of the Incarnation of the Son of God at the same time that pagans celebrated the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice.

The first traces of a season of preparation for Christmas and Epiphany are found in Spain and Gaul in the late fifth century. This preparatory period was necessary because Epiphany had become an accepted time for baptism. Advent liturgy did not take shape in Rome until the sixth century.

Over time, Advent took on much of the penitential focus of Lent. However, it is no longer looked upon as a penitential season. The “Gloria” is omitted, not as a sign of penance, but so it might be sung with renewed joy at Christmas.

Advent is a time of anticipation, of making room in our hearts and lives for Christ. It is a time of hope.


Elizabeth Harrington