What is Advent and why do we celebrate it?

(Photo: Unsplash/Elena Mozhvilo)

In churches across the land, Advent marks the coming of Christmas. This is the story ...

Origin of the word Advent

The English word Advent is not in the Bible. However, the word is biblical in the sense that the word advent came into English from the Latin adventus, meaning arrival, which appears many times in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. In the Latin New Testament, different forms of this word were used to translate the Greek word παρουσία (parousia), meaning arrival, coming, or presence, depending on the context.

In everday English, the word advent is used to describe the arrival of a new era e.g. "the advent of the motor car", or "the advent of the Internet". However, in the Christian context the word Advent is usually used as a proper noun associated with the period before Christmas, although it is used in other ways too. Ever since it was first expounded by the great Cistercian monk St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the term Advent has been used in the Christian tradition to describe the arrival of Christ in three different contexts: to refer to the Advent of Christmas, the Second Advent and the Advent of New Life, which we will look at now in more detail. 

The Advent of Christmas

Many Christians will use Advent to describe the time coming up to Christmas. Historically Advent operated in a similar way to the advent of Easter, called Lent, which were times of preparation to focus and rededicate our spiritual lives. During Advent, many churches look at the biblical stories which precede the birth of Christ. They look at the Old Testament prophecies of the coming Messiah, the birth of John the Baptist who prepared the way, and then look at the birth of Jesus. The nativity narratives are found in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke.

Advent calendars

The concept of Advent has become better known in general society as Advent calendars have become more popular. The idea of Advent calendars began in Germany. The idea spread to Lutheran countries and to the USA, and after the war slowly became more common in Britain. Popular Christmas Advent calendars start for convenience on the 1st of December. The first Advent calendars included biblical scenes and Bible verses but slowly they have become more secular. In 1971, Cadbury's launched their first chocolate Advent calendar in the UK. It was in the 1990s, that novelty Advent calendars, often with little or no religious content, really took off.

Western Advent

Although in the popular mind Advent starts on the 1st of December, in the Catholic and Protestant Church calendars the liturgical season of Advent starts on the first Sunday of four Sundays before Christmas. The first Sunday is generally called Advent Sunday. The second Sunday in Advent was for many centuries known as Bible Sunday, because it was traditional to read Romans 15:4 on that day. The third Sunday of Advent, which is called Gaudete Sunday in some traditions. Advent ends on Christmas Eve on 24th December. Unlike Easter Day which is always on a Sunday, Christmas Day can fall on any day of the week, which means that Advent Sunday can be as early as 27th November, or as late as 3rd December. Advent only starts on the 1st of December when Christmas Day is a Wednesday (as happened in 2019, and will happen in 2024). In 2023, Advent Sunday is Sunday 3rd December.

Eastern Advent

For most Orthodox Christians Advent is the forty days before Christmas, although for Armenians it is fifty days. For Orthodox who have Christmas on 25th December, Advent starts on 15th November, but for those who have Christmas on 7th January, Advent starts on 28th November.

Advent candles

Advent and Christmas fall about the same time as the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, also called the Festival of Lights. The tradition of lighting candles through Advent echoes the Jewish tradition of lighting candles on a Hanukkah menorah, a story which commemorates an event which is recorded in the Septuagint (2 Maccabess 10:6-8).

Advent wreath

In many churches, there is an Advent wreath with four candles and one central candle. The tradition started in nineteenth century Germany, but is now commonplace in many churches. A candle is lit in the service on each Sunday of Advent. The first candle represents the prophets, especially Isaiah who foretold the Messiah. The second candle typically represents Mary and Joseph, or sometimes John the Baptist. The third candle represents the shepherds. The fourth represents the angels. Sometimes a fifth final candle in the centre is lit on Christmas Day, which represents Jesus. In some traditions, the candles even have to be particular colours. This tradition of Advent has becoming increasingly marked in many but not all Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches. Orthodox churches may have seven candles for each of the Sundays of their longer Advent season.

The Second Advent

The second use of the word Advent is to describe the period coming up to the Second Coming of Christ, also called the Second Advent. Some Christian traditions which emphasise this teaching are called Adventist churches. Members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church are commonly known as Adventists. The theology connected to Christ's Second Advent is called eschatology. Many people have predicted the date of the Second Coming and have been proven wrong, so if you don't understand eschatology it is not the end of the world. The idea of the return of Jesus is one of those beliefs which is shared by Christians, and also by Muslims.

The Advent of new life

We now live in a time between the first and second advents of Christ. The third sense of the use of the word advent, describes the advent of Christ into our lives, when Jesus comes into the heart of the believer. The idea of Jesus coming into our lives is found in different verses in the Bible. It is found in the promise in John 14:23 where he says that if anyone loves him and obeys his teaching then "my Father will love them, and my Father and I will come to them and live with them" (GNB). Then in Revelation 3:20 it says, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in..." (ESV). This is the personal advent of the new life as a Christian.

Advent is marked across Christian denominations. The traditions may vary slightly but for Christians the idea is the same - that Advent is a time for all believers and families to commemorate the arrival of the Messiah, prepare for his second Advent, and remember the advent of new life in our own lives.

Republished from Christian Today UK.