ADVENT: AN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE! by Rev. Bart Day

This history of Advent was written by Rev. Bart Day:

ADVENT: AN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE!

The germ of Advent seems to lie in a period of fasting and daily church attendance prescribed for those preparing for baptism on Epiphany [Jan 6]. As the influence of the Eastern Church grew stronger in Spain and Gaul in the 4th-century a three-week period of preparation began on Dec 17 and continued to Jan 6 with daily church attendance required. However, at the very same time, Christmas, which had been instituted at Rome in the 4th-century, had spread northward, with a focus on preparation for the birth of Christ rather than on preparation of baptismal candidates. Here is that history in a bit more detail.

When the Advent season was first observed, it lasted about 6 or 7 Sundays. In parts of Gaul, it began on Nov 11 [St. Martin’s Day] and was called “St. Martin’s Lent.” In 7th-century England, the parallel was drawn even more closely, and Advent had forty days. In A.D. 490 Bishop Perpetuus of Tours [Gaul] issued a regulation that a fast be held on 3 days every week from the Feast of St. Martin [Nov 11] till Christmas; it was called quadragesima Sancti Martinit [Forty Days’ Feast of St. Martin] an obvious imitation of the 40 days of Lent.

The celebration of Christ’s nativity on Dec 25 was introduced as a special feast in Rome about the middle of the 4th-century. In Rome, the celebration of Advent originated only in the 6th-century, where it was a festive and joyful time of preparation for the Feast of the Lord’s Nativity, without any penitential character.

As expected by the time of the 8th-century there were clashes between the non-penitential [Roman] Advent, and the penitential [Eastern] Advent. At this time the Roman church adopted the fasts and the penitential character of the season while the Roman tradition of four weeks prevailed over the Gallic tradition of 7 or 9 weeks. All of this said the situation of incongruity appears to have continued for some centuries till both tendencies were combined in the 13th-century. It was probably also at this time that Advent was recognized as the beginning of the Christian year. Previously, the Church Year had begun with the Festival of the Annunciation [Mar 25] or with Christmas.

While the penitential note was dominant in the later middle ages the penitential law of Advent was never as strict as that of Lent. The Bishop of Burchard of Worms issued the following decree [A.D. 1025]: “In the Quadragesima before Christmas you must abstain from wine, ale, honey-beer, meats, fats, cheese, and from fat fish.” Weddings, amusements, pleasure travel, and conjugal relations were forbidden during the time of fasting. Over time the penitential laws of Advent were relaxed by papal indults, the fast being reduced to 2 days a week, until the fast was abrogated in 1918, except for Ember week [Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after Dec 13] and the vigil of Christmas. The Lutheran Reformation changed the observation of Ember Days; and some remnants persist in the shape of mid-week catechetical services in Advent and Lent. The Wittenberg Order of 1533 replaced the Ember Days by preaching on the catechism during the first two weeks of Advent and Lent and at two other times. There were two daily sessions on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday of each week.

The liturgy of Advent has lacked the harmony and unity of other seasons. The Collects vary: focusing on the first coming of Christ, the Second Coming, and his continual coming in our hearts. The appointed lessons deal with either the joyful preparation of Christmas, or the end of the world and the Second Coming for judgment (see series B: Mk 13:33-37 watching for his Second Coming; Mk 1:1-8 the Baptist preaches repentance; Jn 1:6-8; 19-28 John’s testimony as forerunner; Lk 1:26-38 the annunciation to Mary). The Gloria in Excelsis has been omitted since the 11th-century, as well as the Te Deum in the Offices [Matins and Vespers], but the Alleluia is traditionally retained, as well as the joyful character of the Third Sunday [Gaudete], similar to the 4th Sunday in Lent [Laetare].

William of Durant, Archbishop of Ravenna, expressed the significance of Advent in his formula [A.D. 1296]: “Advent is partly a time of joy [in expectation of the Savior’s nativity] and partly a season of mourning and penance [in expectation of the judgment on the Last Day]. Actually, Advent has come to have a three-fold meaning for the church: the advent of our Lord in the flesh at Christmas; the advent of our Lord in Word and in Spirit; the advent of our Lord in glory at the end of time. If there is one single note that runs through all of the meanings, it is that of joyful anticipation. This is the spirit of the ancient hymn, O Come, O come, Emmanuel.

Pope Innocent III, who became pope in 1198, is the first to write a short treatise, which mentions colors associated with the Church Year. Most believe that Innocent III did not establish these colors but simply reported what he observed as the common use of the church in Rome. For days of apostles and Pentecost he specifies red. For Lent and Advent the color was black. White was the normal color for days when no color was specified in the first half of the year; green was the color for ordinary days after Pentecost. In the pre-Reformation Church of England only white and red were used. Other colors were optional and depended upon their availability: violet or purple for week-days in Advent and Lent, green or blue for week-days after Trinity Sunday. In Württemberg seven colors were used: white, red, green yellow, violet, black and ash gray. These and other systems indicate the lack of any uniform system.

The Lutheran liturgy follows the colors, which became fixed in the Western church after the 16th-century Reformation. Five colors are prescribed by the rubrics of the Lutheran service books to express the spirit of the days and seasons of the church year. These colors are white, red, green, violet, and black. Rose-colored vestments may be used instead of violet on Gaudete, the Third Sunday in Advent, and on Laetare, the Fourth Sunday in Lent. Cloth of gold, but no imitations, or gold-textured woven materials may be substituted for white. But blue and yellow vestments are not authorized in the Western Church. The Lutheran Church explains their use of violet in Advent and Lent because “it is the color of royal mourning and repentance.”
In more recent time purple has been suggested as an appropriate color for Advent since it is “the royal color of the coming king.” The preferred color in The Lutheran Book of Worship is blue with Lutheran Worship suggesting either purple or blue. The use of blue in Advent has precedent in both the Swedish Church and in the Mozarabic rite [the earliest known liturgy in what is today Spain and Portugal]. Blue suggests hope, a primary theme in Advent. While the usage of blue paraments is often attributed to a post Vatican II emphasis on the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in salvific history a number of Roman Catholic scholars are quick to point out that blue is not an approved Latin Rite color for any season or occasion. In fact, Fr. Patrick Fodor has been so bold as to suggest that “blue seems to have been introduced as a money making scheme. Now we can induce everyone to buy another set of paraments, vestments, etc. that they didn’t need before.”

The use of a wreath at Advent originated in the 16th-century among the Lutherans of eastern Germany. The wreath [an ancient symbol of victory and glory], or a small fir or spruce planted in a pot, was suspended from the ceiling or placed on a table symbolizing the fulfillment of time. To the wreath was added four candles representing the 4 weeks of Advent. In the evening the family gathered around the wreath for devotion. Each Sunday of Advent an extra candle is lit, and all the other lights in the room are extinguished to symbolize humanity sitting in darkness [see Lk 2:79], while an Old Testament prophecy concerning the coming of the Christ was read. If the Advent season is observed as a penitential season then violet candles should be used with the substitution of a rose candle reflecting a diminuation of the penitential character of the season (rose, being a step toward the white of Christmas from the violet). If blue is used during the season of Advent then all four candles should be blue. The use of a rose candle with three blue candles is really symbolism with no content at all, nearly a contradiction (since there is no reason for a rose candle). The use of a “Christ candle” in the center of the wreath is a liturgical novelty and may only confuse Easter (with the use of the Paschal candle) and Christmas seasons. Let the Advent wreath count the weeks to Christmas.

Certainly one might consider the above no answer at all, only a diagnosis! May I make the following suggestions? First, the Advent paraments should not be the same as those for Lent, for the character of the two seasons is quite different, and the only symbol common to both is the Lamb of God. Second, we must strive for a consistency in practice that reflects doctrine. The church should never become complacent over the rites and rituals that it uses (even the usage of colors should be carefully considered for what they teach).

During Advent the church would be best served with violet both for paraments and candles in the wreath (this allows for a truer meaner of the single rose candle). As a congregation that uses the three-year lectionary we understand Advent as partly a time of joy [in expectation of the Savior’s nativity] and partly a season of mourning and penance [in expectation of the judgment on the Last Day]. The use of violet and rose allow us to visualize the season in a way that is historically accurate and spiritually meaningful.

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