I like every season of the church year when we get to it, but I think I like Advent best of all. It is a season that emerged out of the culture and geography of Western Europe, not the Mediterranean world. It is not observed in the Eastern Churches. In the Western church calendar Advent is the beginning of the church year, although that hasn’t always been the case. Nor, in Western Europe, was January 1 always the beginning of the civil year. For centuries in Great Britain the civil year began on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation when the new creation began with the invasion of the divine Word into human flesh and human life. In many places the church year calendar began with Lent. Where a year begins is a rather arbitrary decision. But since about the tenth century the Western liturgical year has begun on the fourth Sunday before Christmas with apocalyptic warnings of the second coming of Christ to judge the living and the dead. This gives the impression that the church year places last things first. A case can be made that this is a very good place to begin: with a clear sense of where we are heading before we set out on the journey.
The Roman Church of late antiquity did not have a season of Advent. The Gelasian Sacramentary begins with prayers for the Vigil of the Nativity of Our Lord. The great classic Advent prayers are not Roman at all, but Gallican. The fact that some of them are addressed to Christ (e.g. “Stir up your power, O Lord, and come . . .”) is a tell-tale sign of their Gallican provenance. Classical Roman collects are addressed to God (the Father) through Jesus Christ our Lord. In Evangelical Lutheran Worship the prayers of the day for the first and fourth Sundays of Advent for all three years of the lectionary begin, “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.”
How did [the Advent] season come about and why does it have an eschatological character?
How did this season come about and why does it have an eschatological character? It has been postulated that in Gaul and Spain Epiphany was the second great day in the year for public baptisms because, like Easter, it had its forty days of preparation. Certainly there was a commercial relationship between the eastern and western ends of the Mediterranean Sea and Eastern influence on the far Western church. The Gallican and Hispanic churches observed a six-week season before Christmas that began close to November 11, the Feast of St. Martin of Tours, so it was called “St. Martin’s Lent,” or Quadragesima sancti Martini. It was like Lent because it was a time of fasting, although the fast was not as strict as the Lenten fast. It was only observed on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and not on all days except Sunday, like Lent. A fast developed in the Eastern churches that was called “St. Philip’s Fast” because it begins on the day after the Feast of St. Philip the Apostle, November 14, and lasted until the Epiphany. While the Epiphany was a day for public baptisms in the East, no documentary evidence exists to substantiate the Epiphany as a day of public baptism in the West. We need to look to other explanations for this forty-day fast in the Western church.
The readings for this season in lectionaries of the sixth through eighth centuries, such as those of Wurzburg and Murbach, include themes of Christ’s second coming and the ministry of St. John the Baptist with his call for repentance. In other words, “St. Martin’s Lent” lacked readings that would lend themselves to catechetical purposes. They had more to do with the examination and change of behavior—readings that would be appropriate to the theme of judgment or rendering an account which would be appropriate during harvest time.
November and December were times of harvest and culling the herds in western Europe in preparation for winter. During such times a kind of fasting was observed in that long days of labor did not allow much time for eating. Once the harvest was gathered in and the herd culled, there was time for relaxing and feasting. During such times the church appropriately sounded warnings against excess and encouraged a sense of gratitude or thanksgiving. This would account for the kind of readings that we now have in the lectionary at the end of the church year.
In Rome there were public fasts four times a year going back to pre-Christian times called Ember Days (or, in Latin, quattuor anni tempora, the “four seasons of the year”). These were four separate sets of three days within the same week—specifically, the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday—roughly equidistant in the course of the year—that were set aside for fasting and prayer (formerly known as the jejunia quattuor temporum, “fasts of the four seasons”). The December Ember Days came at the time of harvest and the fast was observed before the thanksgiving for the harvest. We have sermons from Pope Leo I that speak of these days and gather together the themes of thanksgiving, fasting, and eschatological judgment. He says in Sermon XVII,
. . . there is also the solemn fast of the tenth month, which is now kept by us according to yearly custom, because it is altogether just and godly to give thanks to the Divine bounty for the crops which the earth has produced for the use of men under the guiding hand of Providence. And to show that we do this with ready mind, we must exercise not only the self-restraint of fasting, but also diligence in almsgiving, that from the ground of our heart also may spring up the germ of righteousness and the fruit of love, and that we may deserve God’s mercy showing mercy to the poor.
When the December Ember Days were over, the Roman Church observed two weeks in preparation for the Nativity of Our Lord on December 25, centered on the annunciation. Thus there were two different ways of observing the weeks before Christmas in the West: Gallican and Roman.
In the tenth century when German emperors forced the merger of Frankish and Roman liturgies throughout the Holy Roman Empire, a four-week Advent season emerged in which the themes were the second coming of Christ and the ministry of St. John the Baptist. The church year was reckoned to begin on the First Sunday of Advent. The eschatological readings of November carried over into Advent. The ministry of John the Baptist is a hinge linking repentance with anticipation of the coming of Christ. In the reformed Roman Lectionary of 1969 the Fourth Sunday of Advent is the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. But even in this week of the annunciation there is a somber note sounded in the singing of the “O antiphons.”
The “O Antiphons” refer to the seven antiphons that are recited (or chanted) preceding the Magnificat during Vespers of the Liturgy of the Hours from December 17 to 23. The exact origin of the O Antiphons is not known. They were in use in Rome by the eighth century, but were probably recited at the Benedictine abbey of Fleury (now Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire) earlier. Like many of the texts coming out of Gaul in late antiquity (e.g. the Reproaches in the Good Friday Liturgy, the Exsultet in the Easter Vigil), the O Antiphons demonstrate a remarkable biblical typology and a christological reading of the Old Testament. Each antiphon highlights a title for the Messiah: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel. Also, each title refers to prophecies of Isaiah.
It has been noted that if one starts with the last title and takes the first letter of each one — I(E)mmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia — the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning “Tomorrow, I will come.” In this acrostic the Lord Jesus, whose coming is prepared for in Advent and who is addressed in these seven messianic titles, says, “Tomorrow, I will come.” Thus the O Antiphons not only bring intensity to the Advent preparation, but bring it to a joyful conclusion.
The Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” is based on the O Antiphons. One of the few Advent hymns known and sung by many Western Christians, it was a translation and versification of the O Antiphons by John Mason Neale, first published in Mediaeval Hymns in 1851. Neale’s original translation began, “Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel.” It is believed that the traditional music stems from a fifteenth-century French processional for Franciscan nuns, but it may have an original Gregorian base. Many hymnals include only five stanzas. The Hymnal 1982, #56, includes all seven stanzas, with the first repeated as the eighth, thus covering all the days between December 17 and 23. This arrangement of the hymn was incorporated into Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #257.
The Advent season has received great emphasis in the Lutheran tradition, as demonstrated in the wealth of Advent hymnody generated in this tradition. Among German hymns we would note the chorale setting of Ambrose’s “Savior of the nations, come” (Nun komm, der heiden Heiland) and Paul Gerhardt’s “O Lord, how shall I meet you” (based on Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the historic Lutheran Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent). Philipp Nicolai’s great chorale, “Wake, awake, for night is flying,” is often sung during the Advent season, but it is based on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, which was read on the last Sunday after Pentecost (Trinity) in old Lutheran lectionaries. Advent is especially popular in Sweden. Among Swedish hymns are Laurentius Laurentii’s “Rejoice, rejoice, believers” and Frans Mikael Franzén’s “Prepare the royal highway.”
Advent was also observed in the Anglican tradition, but there were no hymns related to Advent themes until Charles Wesley, because before Wesley congregational song in Reformed England was based almost exclusively on the psalter. But among Wesley’s six thousand hymns are “Come, thou long-expected Jesus” and “Lo, he comes on clouds descending.”
Reflecting the fact that Advent did not originate as a Roman observance, there was no proper preface for Advent in medieval and therefore also Reformation books. The first Advent preface in North America was in the Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal (1958). It was based on the Advent preface in the Scottish Book of Common Prayer (1929) and the 1940 Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland. The Roman Sacramentary of 1969 provided two Advent prefaces: one for the first week through December 16, drawn from sources in the Leonine or Verona Sacramentary, and the other for December 17–24, drawn from a Christmas preface in the Verona Sacramentary (no. 1241).
A custom that has developed during the Advent season that also reflects the joy of anticipation is the Advent wreath. It is generally thought that a wheel or wreath of evergreens was a symbol in northern Europe long before the arrival of Christianity. The circle symbolized the eternal cycle of the seasons while the evergreens signified the persistence of life in the midst of winter.
A custom that has developed during the Advent season that also reflects the joy of anticipation is the Advent wreath. It is generally thought that a wheel or wreath of evergreens was a symbol in northern Europe long before the arrival of Christianity. The circle symbolized the eternal cycle of the seasons while the evergreens signified the persistence of life in the midst of winter. Some sources suggest the wreath—reinterpreted as a Christian symbol—was used in the Middle Ages, others that it was established in Germany as a Christian custom only in the sixteenth century, and others that the Advent wreath was not invented until the nineteenth century. This last theory credits Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808–1881), a Lutheran pastor in Germany and a pioneer in urban mission work among the poor, as the originator of the modern Advent wreath. During Advent, children at the mission school Wichern founded in Hamburg for juvenile delinquents (known as “The Rough House”) would ask daily if Christmas had arrived. In 1839, he set up a large wooden cartwheel with nineteen small red and four large white candles. A small candle was lit successively every weekday during Advent. On Sundays a large white candle was lit. The custom gained ground among Lutheran churches in Germany and evolved into the smaller wreath with four candles known today. Roman Catholics in Germany began to adopt the custom in the 1920s, and in the 1930s it spread to North America. In Roman Catholic churches purple candles were used, except for pink on the third Sunday (Gaudate — “Rejoice,” from the Introit, “Rejoice in the Lord always”), reflecting the liturgical colors. In Lutheran use, white candles were used on all four Sundays. More recently, a deep royal blue has become a liturgical color of Advent in Lutheran churches, and there have also been blue candles, or white candles with blue rings.
Originally a custom used in homes and schools, the Advent wreath has been brought into the churches and lighted during public worship. There is no prescribed liturgical use of the Advent wreath and there is no authoritative set of meanings for the candles. The Advent wreath is more properly the center for domestic devotions. Extensive devotions around the Advent wreath within the liturgy would not be appropriate. But hanging it in the church and lighting an additional candle each week increases the sense of anticipation that we are approaching the coming of Christ into the world—both as Savior and Judge. The light of Christ is for revelation but also for scrutiny—exposing the things that linger in the darkness because they are evil. Which is to say that Christmas does not lack an eschatological character. And for that very reason it should not be rushed. We need all the time we can get for repentance and faith formation, to get the oil replenished in our lamps while we wait for the Bridegroom to arrive. In my experience Advent goes by all too quickly.
I look forward to the First Sunday of Advent when, in my congregation, we enter singing what had been Hymn #1 in the Service Book and Hymnal (1958)—with the tune Merton restored in ELW #246—solemnly and with the rumbling of a deep organ accompaniment:
Hark! A thrilling voice is sounding!
“Christ is near,” we hear it say.
“Cast away the works of darkness,
all you children of the day!”
For more information see Frank C. Senn, Introduction to Christian Liturgy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012).
Join the Conversation:
What are some of your favorite hymns, prayers, and traditions of the Advent season?