Advent -- Preparing for Christmas

As I mentioned last week in discussing the Holy Days of November and December, the Advent season marks the beginning of the Christian Church's liturgical year and consists of the four Sundays (and their weekdays) before Christmas, starting with the Sunday nearest to November 30. Today is the second Sunday of Advent 2013.

Advent is the liturgical season that precedes and prepares for Christmas, and concludes in the late afternoon of December 24. Christmastide, or the celebration of the Christmas season, officially begins at sundown on Christmas Eve. If Christmas Eve is on a Sunday, it is counted as the fourth Sunday of Advent, ending at sundown.

The word "Advent" has its origin in the Medieval Latin word adventus, meaning "arrival." The season offers the opportunity for Christians to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah. Is it even possible for us, in the year 2013, to understand and fully appreciate the terrible suffering and agony that generations and generations of the ancient Hebrew people experienced? Is it possible to put ourselves in the place of knowing how desolate parents would have felt thinking that their children and their grandchildren were destined for the same life of sadness, disappointment, and suffering that their ancestors before them experienced?

And then to be promised by the ancient Hebrew Prophets that a different time was ahead for them -- that the time was drawing near for the coming of a Messiah -- a great leader who would provide for them an escape from the lives their predecessors had undergone. What excitement, hope, and joy they must have felt to believe that the time was near for the adventus -- for the anticipated "arrival" or "advent" of this Messiah. That is the feeling that the season of Advent is all about!

The most frequently sung Advent hymn is "O come, O come, Emmanuel." In hymnals where the hymns are grouped together by particular seasons or times of the year, "O come, O come, Emmanuel" will usually appear first in the Advent section.

We do not know the date of origin for the hymn. It is thought by hymnology scholars that it originated in the ninth century or earlier as seven short verses sung immediately before or after the reading of a Psalm in Advent services of worship. Sometime in the twelfth or 13th century (scholars differ), it was revised into three stanzas or verses, each stanza followed by the same refrain, and set to the music of an ancient, eerie plainsong that was used as a chant. Its haunting melody is hard to get out of one's mind after singing it or hearing it played. The words were translated into English in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The hymn (based on the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 and its fulfillment in Matthew 1:23) so very appropriately describes the mood and spirit of hope of the Advent season. It talks about the people who are asking for the coming of Emmanuel (meaning God with us) as a ransom to free them from captivity. It asks for the gloomy clouds of night and the dark shadows of death to be done away with. And finally it describes the peoples of the world being joined in peace. The refrain takes all gloominess and agony out of the Advent season and talks of rejoicing as the result of Emmanuel's coming.

Stanza One:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee Israel!

Stanza Two:
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight.

Stanza Three:
O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and discord cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven's peace.

(Information about this hymn was found in The Gospel in Hymns: Backgrounds and Interpretations, a book written by Albert Edward Baily and published by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1950).

The use of the Advent Wreath is also popular during the Advent season in homes and Advent services of many Christian denominations. It is a circular evergreen wreath (real or artificial) with five candles, four around the wreath and one that in the center. The circle of the wreath is symbolic of the never ending presence of God -- His eternity -- as is the use of evergreen. The wreath was also a popular prize for winning races and other athletic competitions, and during the Advent season the wreath is symbolic of God's victory over sin and death. And the candles are symbolic of Christ's being the light of the world.

One candle around the wreath is lighted the first Sunday of Advent, with another candle also being lighted each of the following Sundays of Advent, building the anticipation for the coming of the Messiah. The center candle, the Christ candle, is lighted on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Usually, either before or after the candles are lighted an appropriate scripture is read and a hymn sung.

The colors of the candles vary with traditions. For many denominations white candles are used, but for churches of a more liturgical background, three of the candles will be purple, the liturgical color of penitence, and the one used on the third Sunday of Advent is pink or rose, a brighter color for rejoining at the midpoint of Advent. The Christ Candle is always white. Red and Green are secular colors of Christmas used for decorating, but never used for liturgical purposes.

Advent is marked by a spirit of expectation, of anticipation, of preparation, of longing. And next comes Christmas!