As crazy as it is to think, Christmas is right around the corner. Churches all over the country will soon be making plans to make it one of their most meaningful times of the year. And with the Christmas season will come the Christian celebration of Advent.
To be honest with you, I didn't celebrate Advent growing up. I don't even think I heard the word until Bible college. The primary reason for this was because the churches we viewed as corrupt celebrated Advent, therefore it must be a corrupt celebration. We really missed the point on that one.
But whether you celebrate Advent or not. Whether your church recognizes it as an official part of the Christian calendar or not. There is much we can learn from the history of Advent and the opportunity to lead our churches into a better understanding of what Christmas means for the believer. In many ways similar to Lent, it is a time of preparation for something greater to come for Christians.
What is Advent?
Advent comes from the Latin word "adventus" which was translated from the Greek word "parousia" - which is a word that means "coming." It was used for both Jesus' first coming at His birth and also to describe His second coming. While many celebrate Advent as the coming of Jesus to earth as a baby and being born of the Virgin Mary, historically Advent had a division of focus.
Because "parousia" celebrates both Jesus' first and second arrivals to earth, Advent was divided into two celebrations. The first two weeks celebrated the promise of the Second Coming of Jesus. The second two weeks shifted focus onto the coming of Jesus as a baby and being born in a manger.
We also begin to see the church's history of celebrating and worshiping during the time of Advent around the 8th and 9th centuries. The old hymn, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," specifically was written more than 1200 years ago and has a direct connection to the celebration of Advent. Beginning a week from Christmas, different lines would be sung each day to prepare each person for Christmas. The intensity would build until finally on Christmas Eve, the line of "O, come Emmanuel," was sung as the entire hymn was brought to a conclusion on the night we celebrate the birth of Jesus.
This hymn specifically calls to mind the language of Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23 - "See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name Him Immanuel, which is translated 'God is with us.'" [Matthew 1:23 HCSB] You can read more of the history here.
You can also find Advent albums within the classical music genre. Albums like, "Advent at St. Paul's" and "Bach: Advent Cantatas," are available online.
Council of Sargossa
We don't have many details about the beginnings of Advent. Much of the history begins around the 4th and 5th centuries. There is one place in particular where we see Advent specifically discussed and that was at the Council of Sargossa in 380 AD. The council seems to be held in response to Priscillianism, a Gnostic, anti-physical heresy around at that time. In response to this heresy, it made sense that Christians would celebrate that coming of God in human flesh. Whether that is true or not, we don't ultimately know, but there seems to be a strong connection.
This Council was not the creation of Advent, but merely the doubling down on Christians current beliefs that God became flesh in the form of Jesus and lived among us. As a result, the Council encouraged Christians to attend church every day from December 17-29 to worship and celebrate.
As Advent takes different shapes throughout history and through different denominational backgrounds, it still stands as an extremely important time in the Christian calendar. The point is to redirect Christians' minds away from the consumerism so often associated with Christmas and onto the One who came and will come again. Catholics and Protestants alike will worship to the same songs and begin to prepare their hearts and minds for the celebration of Jesus' birth. This is one time of year when no matter your denominational background, you can find common ground with other believes from differing faith traditions.
While churches may not specifically set aside time to observe Advent, many will observe it in their homes as a way to help their families stay focused on Christ during the Christmas season. Over the years, Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Orthodox, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Episcopals have all traditionally observed Advent. Many other Protestant and Evangelical Christians are coming back to some Advent practices as they see the need for the correct focus on Christ during the season.
Churches and Christian families will decorate with things like the Advent wreath, lighting candles as Christmas approaches. Some will opt to not decorate with the traditional red and green colors of Christmas but will go with the historic purple, pink and white. Each of these having a specific meaning and connectionto the Advent season.
The Reality of Advent
The reality of all of this is that Advent isn't found in Scripture. God doesn't command us to observe the Christmas and the first coming of Jesus in a specific way. But God throughout Scripture gives His people moments and opportunities to reflect. For instance, when He tells Joshua to build an altar to remember what God had done at the crossing of the Jordan. That was an opportunity for the people of God to pause, reflect and worship the God who had sustained and provided for them. We still need moments like that today. In other words; we need Advent.
We need Advent as a stake in the ground moment that refocuses our hearts and minds on King Jesus. Moments that draw us in to the rich history of our faith and connect us to millions of other believers. Celebrations that connect us back to the very core of what it is that separates Christianity from all other world religions.
Advent is a nearly 1600-year-old celebration of the Christian faith that each year has helped millions of Christians worldwide, reflect on the birth of Jesus Christ (His first coming) and to look forward to the day when He will return and restore all things as they are in heaven (His second coming).
As Christmas approaches and we make plans to celebrate, let’s not forget the historical significance of Advent in the church.