It seems like we are always either busy going or coming — especially as the Christmas holidays approach. There’s a flurry of preparations, planning and cleaning for guests who will come.
In many regards, the church does much the same: preparing and planning for the arrival of guests. First, Advent is marked by the change of color for vestments and liturgical decorations, from the green of Ordinary Time to purple. The Advent wreath appears and special hymns are sung, such as the familiar “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “People Look East.” The readings and Gospels at Mass, as well as the prayers and readings of the Liturgy of the Hours, focus on Mary, John the Baptist and the coming of the Lord — both in history and at the end of time. Clearly, the focus switches toward “coming” and “getting ready.”
The dictionary tells us that the word “advent” came to us from ancient Rome and the Latin word adventus — which referred to “an arrival.” The adventus was not just any arrival, but something that had both sacred and festive meanings.
An “adventus” was a special event. It was first used to refer to the various Roman gods, whose statues were removed from their temples at special times of the year to be cleaned up and freshly decorated and then paraded through the city to return to their temples with great ceremony to symbolize a renewed coming of the gods’ power and presence among the people.
This sort of event was eventually taken up by the Caesars — who wanted to be considered “gods on earth” — to honor their travels throughout the Roman Empire. When Caesar traveled anywhere on a state visit, special coins were minted and parades and festivals were held to mark his adventus.
Eventually, the great celebrations of Caesar’s adventus took on a new meaning for Christians, with preparations being made for the coming of Christ.
The Advent that we know today — while influenced by Roman customs, but also by the churches in Gaul and Spain — was formalized under Pope St. Gregory VII (d. 1085). He set the season to cover the four Sundays before the feast of Christ’s Nativity, and to celebrate the coming of Emmanuel (“God with us”).
As noted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Advent is a time to prepare to welcome a special guest: “When the church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming” (no. 524).
This year, the season of Advent starts on Nov. 29. Each year, Advent begins on the Sunday nearest the feast of St. Andrew (Nov. 30), who is called the Protocletus (the First Called of the Apostles) by the Eastern Churches. The Advent season includes four Sundays and ends with the Vigil Mass of Christmas. Depending on the calendar, the season can last as long as 28 days or as briefly as 21 days.
There was a time when Advent lasted even longer, starting on Nov. 11 (the feast of St. Martin of Tours, therefore sometimes called “Martinmas”) and lasting until Christmas Eve. That was a period of 40 days (not counting the four formal Sundays of Advent). It seems that this practice started in France around the fifth century and then spread to England before crossing over the rest of Europe.
Because, just as during Lent, there were certain days in the Advent season that were prescribed as days of fasting — first for monks and later for the general population — these 40 days became known as St. Martin’s Lent, or the Forty Days of St. Martin. This lasted, formally, into the 11th century, but one can still find references to it. Pope St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) did reduce the official length of Advent to four weeks, but it included five Sundays during his time.
Another connection that seems to have linked Lent and Advent has to do with the sacrament of baptism. In the early church, just as it is today, Lent was a time of preparation for catechumens, who formally entered the church at the Easter Vigil.
When the season of Advent began to develop, it was during a time of year when catechumens were also preparing to enter the church; they did so at the feast of Epiphany (Jan. 6), in honor of Christ’s baptism. It is good to remember that the full celebration of Epiphany not only commemorates the visit of the Magi to the Baby Jesus, but also honors Jesus’ baptism and his first miracle of changing water into wine.
While Advent is not primarily the penitential season that Lent is, there are still aspects of Advent that mirror the simplicity of Lent: from the removal of the Gloria at Masses (except on feasts such as the Immaculate Conception) and use of the purple color. Until recent times, weddings were not allowed in the church during Advent (or Lent) and up to Epiphany.
However, unlike Lent’s preparations for the sorrows of Holy Week (before the glory of Easter), Advent leads us steadily toward the gentle light of Christ’s coming. This is shown not only in the increasing light of the Advent candles, but also in the focus of the Gospel readings which, in later Advent move from the energy and turmoil of the end times to the coming of John the Baptist and the story of Mary. Another thing to note is that the Alleluia — absent during Lent — is always present during Advent.
All these serve to remind us that we are both preparing and waiting, as Mary was, with quiet joy, for the fulfillment of the promise of God in the person of Christ, the best guest to arrive — at any time of the year.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Days of the Lord, the Liturgical Year”; Catechism of the Catholic Church; “An Elementary Latin Dictionary”; “Catholic Customs and Traditions”; “The Harper Collins Dictionary of Catholicism”; catholic.org; Catholic News Agency; christianity.com; americancatholic.org; and catholicculture.org.