The History and Beauty of Advent
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” John 3:16
Now that it is December, people worldwide are celebrating the season of Advent, a season with a long history. Contrary to what many people believe, it doesn’t wholly refer to Christmas, though it still has deep Biblical meaning rooted in God’s love for His people.
For some, Advent is simply a time to countdown to Christmas Day. We may have an Advent calendar on the wall made of anything from cloth to wood to Legos, all containing small surprises for children in the build-up to the big day on December 25. But for others, it is the beginning of the liturgical season, a time of gathering to reflect and anticipate the Lord.
The difference in perspectives can be confusing for some. But when we take a closer look at Advent’s history, we discover some reasons why.
Advent comes from the Greek parousia, a translation from Latin, adventus, meaning “coming.” Parousia refers both to Christ’s “coming” in human form and His second divine “coming” during the Tribulation. Its history dates to fourth-century Europe and perhaps further.
Originally occurring in Spain and the ancient regions of Gaul and Hispania, believers used the Advent season to prepare for the baptism of new Christians during the feast of Epiphany in January. During this forty-day season, people would spend time praying, repenting, and fasting as they commemorated the incarnation of Jesus (Matthew 1:18–25; Luke 2:1–20), the visit of the Magi (Matthew 2:1–12), Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist (John 1:29–34), and His first miracle at the wedding feast in Cana (John 2:1–10).
Many eastern cultures still celebrate Advent this way with an emphasis on Jesus’ first coming.
The Council of Sargossa
One of the first official pieces of evidence of Advent is found in documents attributed to the Council of Sargossa. In 380 A.D., a gnostic movement called Priscillianism forced the Council to respond to a challenge of heresy.
The cultic movement had a dualistic belief that two kingdoms existed: light and darkness. They believed God commanded men to conquer the darkness, but the men failed miserably and were sentenced to remain in human form. They further believed men could only be released from the confines of the earth by the death of a Savior. And so, men embody both light and dark kingdoms, the light symbolized by the Light of the Twelve Patriarchs and the darkness by zodiac signs.
In its attempt to clarify matters, the Council of Sargossa (based in Zaragoza, now Spain) emphasized the importance of God’s incarnation and how Jesus’ birth counterbalances the powers of darkness. As Christians, we are supposed to prepare our hearts to celebrate the Lord’s human birth as well as His return to claim His church one day.
So, the Council was the first to proclaim that Advent is about both the Lord’s birth (His first coming) and His ultimate return (the second coming)
The Council’s ruling held for many years, but the Roman Catholics were not in complete agreement. By the sixth century, they changed their entire focus of Advent solely to the anticipation of Jesus’ second coming.
However, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Christians shifted their focus again to only Jesus’ birth and the celebration of Christmas. Sometime later, they reverted to celebrating both His birth and His future return, a tradition that still holds.
While eastern countries still traditionally celebrate Advent over forty days in preparation for the Epiphany in January, western countries have reduced it to the last four Sundays leading up to December 25. During this time, believers gather in churches to sing, pray, and read prepared Scriptures together.
The first two Sundays of Advent focus on Christ’s second coming as foretold in Old Testament prophecy. The themes are of hope and preparation. The second two Sundays focus on His first coming as retold in the New Testament with themes of joy and love.
The importance of the two parts of Advent is meant to highlight Jesus’ life and point us to where we, the church, are in that period between His birth and His ultimate return.
Hope and Preparation for Christ’s Coming
As families worship together, specific Scriptures are often read aloud in church services during Advent. These readings accompany the lighting of a new candle on the Advent wreath (see below).
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned. […] For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace, there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”
Continuing with the Old Testament, the second Sunday of Advent is also from Isaiah’s book, with an emphasis on preparing ourselves for Christ’s second coming.
“A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’” Isaiah 40:3–5
The Joy and Love of Advent
The third Sunday turns to the joy of Jesus’ fulfillment of Father God’s promise of a Messiah. A reading from the book of Matthew is presented as well as readings from Psalm 146:5–10, Isaiah 35:1–10, and Luke 2:8–14, which retells Christ’s birth.
“When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:10–11
Finally, on the fourth Sunday, a reading from the book of John reminds us of God’s love for His people.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” John 3:16–19
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
The Advent Wreath
Instead of colorful hanging calendars to mark Advent, many people mark the season with a unique wreath rich in symbolism.
A German Lutheran minister made the first known wreath in 1839. He made the wreath from the wheel of an old cart and decorated it with twenty red candles and four white candles. The minister lit the red candles progressively on the weekdays, and he lit a new white candle on each successive Sunday.
Eventually, people stopped making wreaths from wheels and used evergreen branches instead to symbolize everlasting life. They remained round to symbolize God’s eternal love for us. Some wreaths occasionally include red holly and berries to symbolize Jesus’ death on the cross on our behalf, as well as pinecones, which indicate new life and Jesus’ victory over death through His resurrection.
The Wreath Candles
Unlike the early wreaths, today’s wreaths typically have five candles — four purple ones around the perimeter indicating hope, faith, joy, and peace, and a white candle in the middle to symbolize Jesus’ coming. As the four outer candles are lit each week, specific Scriptures are read aloud (as previously mentioned).
Roman Catholics later adopted the liturgical color violet for Advent commemoration while others commonly use blue or purple. Some churches still use all red candles with four blue or white candles for each Sunday.
A wreath may also include a pink or rose-colored candle. This candle is lit on Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, to symbolize the nearness of the Lord’s coming (both past and future).
A fifth white candle is commonly placed in the middle of the wreath. This candle is lit on Christmas Day to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Some churches have no wreaths and simply have their congregation light a single white candle in place of lighting the fifth candle of the wreath.
It may be because of the weekly candle lighting that many use Advent as a time to count down to Christmas Day, though Advent is about so much more than keeping track of days. It is a time of celebrating our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s not just how He was born in a manger while a brilliant star shone in the sky. It’s also how He died on a cross, came to life again three days later, and how one incredible day He will return for His church and conquer wickedness forever.
It’s About More Than Christmas
Whether your church celebrates Advent or not, it is essential to note that it is not a Biblical commandment. It is simply a beautiful act of worship as we remember who Jesus is, what He’s done for us, and the promise of what He’s still going to do.
This Christmas, why not gather with your family, light a candle, and read from the Scriptures in honor of the Lord? You may be surprised how much more meaningful Christmas and Christ Himself will mean to you this year.