Advent is one of the major seasons celebrated by most Christian churches in the Western tradition.
In 600 AD, Advent began when it was declared by Gregory the First to start four Sundays before Christmas day in the Christian calendar and has since been practiced throughout church history. Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Advent in the forty days preceding Christmas.
Whether your church celebrates lighting four candles or other ways, chances are you’ve heard of Advent. Advent is one of the major seasons celebrated by most Christian churches in the Western tradition. The early church understood the importance of how time plays a large part in orienting our identity.
They wanted to make sure that people would only focus on one thing. The earliest Christians should keep themselves focused on who they were: the people of God awaiting their risen Lord.
Let’s see the greater significance of Advent as we take in the sweeping panorama of time – from Christ’s birth to His Second Coming. The magnificent vision of life and hope is what the season of Advent brings given to us by our Lord.
What is Advent?
The Advent season is four Sundays preceding Christmas. It usually starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Most Christians observed this holiday season as a time of expectant waiting and preparation. This season is both the celebration of the Nativity of Christ and His return. Advent for Western Christianity is the beginning of the liturgical year.
Advent season is also practiced in Eastern Orthodoxy for the 40-day Nativity Fast. The season of Advent begins with the First Vespers or Evening Prayer I of the Sunday that lands closest to November 30 and ends before the Evening Prayer before Christmas.
The word Advent in Middle English is borrowed from the Latin “adventus.” The Latin word adventus means “coming”. It is also a translation of the Greek word “parousia” which means “arrival”. This means the coming of Jesus into this world. Scholars believe that the word “coming” in Advent has these meanings.
First, Advent is the season of preparation for the baptism of new Christians. Second, Advent celebrates God’s incarnation represented by the visit of the wise men (Matthew 2:1). Third, Jesus Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist (John 1:29). And fourth, Advent is the celebration of His first miracle in Cana (John 2:1).
While we view Advent as a joyous occasion, it is intended to be a season of preparation much like Lent. The church needs to be in prayer, penance, and fasting during this season. Advent is not as strict as Lent, but it is meant to be a period of self-preparation. Christmas, Advent, Lent, and Easter are all tied up in their message.
Advent and Christianity
There is more to Advent than just anticipation and celebration of Christ’s birth. In Christian teaching, two events are anticipated by Christians. These events are the fulfilled promise of Christ’s first coming and the yet-to-be-fulfilled promise of His second coming. Part of the observance of Advent is the anticipation of Jesus’ birth as written by prophets like Isaiah in the Old Testament. This is what Christian theology calls the “First Coming.”
On one hand, they also believe in Jesus’ return at the end of the day. They believe Jesus will return to set things right in the world, erasing death and suffering. This concept is what they call the “Second Coming”. During this season, it is best that we set aside a time of quietness and austerity. Advent is a reminder for the church to be encouraged and wait for the “Second Coming.”
Traditions vary even in Protestant churches when it comes to celebrating Advent in December and the symbols and practices that come with it. Some give more emphasis on the birth and others on the coming of Christ. For some, they include Christmas Eve in the celebration but others focus more on the day of Christmas. Some use rose-colored vestments and then others count four weeks and others forty days.
Symbols of Advent
This holiday season, celebrated in December, has its unique symbols and traditions. These symbols will serve as a reminder to focus our eyes on the coming of the Lord. Traditions associated with Advent include keeping an Advent Calendar and lighting the candles among others. It can also include setting up a Christmas tree with a Christmas light sometimes even before December starts with all of these reminding us of the coming of Christ in our lives.
The tradition of Advent calendars has been around since the nineteenth century. German Lutherans adopted this as a way to mark the days of the season leading up to Christmas. They made markings of 24 chalk lines on a door and rubbed one off every day in December. Advent calendars carry an underlying spiritual message of anticipation and hope for the church. It can be a valuable aid for Christian families. An Advent calendar helps us remember and reflect on the coming of Jesus Christ.
Advent calendars typically begin on December 1 and count down the days until December 25. There are many forms of calendars used by many countries. In the 1900s, the paper calendar was first popular in Germany. German printer called Gerhard Lang was the most famous and popular early maker of printed Advent calendars. The first calendar with ‘doors’ was made in the 1920s. You can see a devotional picture or Bible verse hidden behind each door.
The use of Advent calendars is a popular way of involving children in the season. Families have their unique styles of the Advent calendar. Some families focus on the Lord and use the nativity-themed as their calendar. Parents help their children make charm bracelets. Some have calendars made up of chocolates in all sizes. These types of calendars help families enjoy the Advent tradition. It also promotes the practice of gift-giving.
Advent Wreath and Candle
Advent wreaths originated in Germany in 1839. A Lutheran minister created a wreath out of the wheel of a cart which eventually earned the name Advent wreaths. The ring includes twenty small red candles and four large white candles. On weekdays, the red candles are lit. The four white candles are lit on Sundays.
Eventually, the Advent wreath is created out of evergreens. Evergreens symbolize everlasting life in winter and death as the evergreen is continuously green. The ring is a reminder of God’s unending love and the eternal life He makes possible. Four candles are often nestled in the Advent wreath. A new taper is lit every Sunday before Christmas. Advent candles remind us that starting from the birth of Jesus, He came as Light into our dark world.
This Advent tradition coincides with the themes of each week of Advent lasting four Sundays. The first one called the “Prophet’s Candle,” symbolizes hope. It shows how the prophet Isaiah waited on the Messiah in the Old Testament. The second is called the “Bethlehem’s Candle” and represents faith. The Messiah was foretold to be born in Bethlehem, just like King David.
The third is the Rose Candle which signifies joy. It shows the shepherd’s great joy that our Lord came for humble and unimportant people like us. The fourth is called the “Angels Candle” and represents peace. The angels announced the peace that the Lord would bring.
It is a reminder of the angel’s message: “Peace on earth and goodwill toward men.” Some practice the fifth one placed in the middle and lit on Christmas day. It is called “Christ’s Candle” and symbolizes light and purity.
Other Advent Season Traditions
The four Sundays of Advent in December are not complete if we celebrate Advent without the Jesse tree. Families enjoy the tradition of the Jesse tree, which focuses on God’s thread of redemption. This tradition originated in the medieval church in the middle ages in the form of carvings and stained glass windows. These are usually placed in Churches to assist people who are unable to read to understand the Bible.
What Do the Four Weeks of Advent Represent?
The period beginning the four Sundays of Advent in December is celebrated with a specific theme or focus. Each theme is designed to spend time on religious observance such as reflecting on the true meaning of the season – the life of Jesus Christ. The purpose of this season should be to come before God with a sincere heart and to worship our Lord and Savior.
In the observance of Advent, churches lead their congregation through Advent readings. The tradition includes theme Scripture readings each Sunday of Advent. Advent readings remind us that the essence of Advent is deeply rooted in the Bible and the Word of God becomes deeper and more real as we experience it through Advent. The ones in charge of lighting the candles must light one on the first Sunday, then two on the second Sunday, and so on during these four Sundays before Christmas.
Week 1: Hope or Promise
The word hope means we don’t have control over what will happen. But hope in a biblical sense is very different. Hope, as written in the Bible, exists as security assurance. In the Bible, hope means trust placed in a trustworthy God. Hope is vital during these times of trials and distress.
Like the prophets in the Bible, we anticipate our Savior’s arrival. We hope for a Messiah to save us from the sin in the world (Isaiah 9:6-7). In the Old Testament, the Israelites yearned for a Messiah to save them from their enemies. And the One who will ultimately save them from their greatest enemy: their sin. The word Advent means “arrival.” This is what we hope for and remember at the same time during the first week.
Week one of Advent honors that longing. It is a reminder for us to contemplate His coming and to reach out to Him knowing that He will lead us through the darkness. During this week, believers lit the “Prophecy Candle” which is colored purple.
Week 2: Preparation or Waiting
The second week of Advent signifies the preparation for the coming of our Lord. In Luke 3:4-6, John the Baptist prepares the Way for the Lord. John told his listeners to make their lives ready so the Lord could come to them. This week is a reminder of the messages of repentance and forgiveness that John the Baptist preached as he prepared the way for the Lord.
This means that when you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, He will take care of all your sinfulness. To “prepare the way” means clearing aside the baggage of the past and the doubts of the present. This way you are letting the King come into your life. And the Messiah will take it from there.
During this week, the second one is lit and also known as the “Bethlehem Candle”. This is also colored purple and represents faith. It is a reminder of the birth of Jesus.
Week 3: Joy or Peace
The third Sunday is a reflection of the joy that comes through the Lord’s birth and through the salvation He has gifted us. This week is considered the turning point of Advent. It is where the church moves from hope and preparation to rejoicing. The spirit of Advent lightens beginning the Gaudete Sunday which comes from the first word of the Latin Entrance Antiphon. Gaudete in Latin means “rejoice” so the Gaudete Sunday is all about the happiness we experience.
In Philippians 4:4-5, we celebrate the passage of this week to “rejoice” for “indeed the Lord is near.” The ultimate rejoicing comes from the Lord dwelling within us. Christ is near, and we will fully realize this ultimate gladness on His second coming.
The pink one is used during the third Sunday of Advent. The “Shepherd’s Candle” highlights the rejoicing the shepherds experienced when they received the good news about Christ’s birth. The ultimate joy in Christ is vital to the Christian experience.
Week 4: Love or Adoration
On the fourth Sunday of Advent, churches ignite the love taper or the “Angel’s Candle”. They burn the final purple one to mark the final week of prayer and penance as we wait for the birth of our Savior. In the last week leading up to Christmas, we focus on God’s love as we prepare for the Good News.
The love from Christ is what Christmas is all about. We are not Christians without the love and sacrifice of the Son, Jesus Christ (John 3:16-19).
The Christ Candle
In addition to the love candle, some churches also light the “Christ Candle”. This one is usually placed at the center of the Advent wreath. Churches have this candle traditionally lit on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve. This is usually a white candle that symbolizes purity and blamelessness. It is a representation of the role of the Lord in the Christmas story.
His arrival on this earth as a baby shows how our Lord and Savior brought brightness into this world. It also symbolizes the holy light that He passed on to us as His followers. This is the culmination of all the waiting and preparation. Our celebration of Christmas is complete.
Advent is our time to be more involved in the meaning and the possibilities of life as a Christian community. It is not just about the baby Jesus, but it is a reminder to prepare not only for Christmas but also for the Second Coming. Christmas is one of the most important celebrations we have as believers. It brings us happiness and Advent also reminds us of what Christmas is pointing towards – salvation and the resurrection that we celebrate in the Holy Week and Easter.
Although it is more often viewed as something joyous, we should all remember that Advent happens because of God’s love and ultimately, His sacrifice for us. It means to be awake and watchful when He comes again. The Lord should not find us asleep. The Advent season should be about our hearts and minds focused on our Lord and Savior.
More than the Christmas tree, wreaths, candles, and other varying traditions, and religious observance, the true meaning of the season of Advent is to celebrate the hope, peace, love, and joy of Christmas and, anticipate Christ’s coming.
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