For John Gayford, Advent is a quiet time of
recollection, full of hope and Christian joy
The promise of our soul’s fulfilment by our renewed response to the light of Christ’s Advent is emblazoned within Isaiah. It is disastrous to see this abandoned and replaced with the comfortable bacchanalia that is secular Advent, and to forget some of the Christian determinants of our Advent rituals.
Advent is a season when God calls us out of darkness to light, and thus is a season of self -examination. It is a season of hope, expectation and yearning as we strive to improve our relationship with God. Advent is a period of waiting, looking forward in the context of the coming of our Blessed Lord, both in history, in present grace, and at the end of time.
Advent observance goes back to the fourth century, but unlike most periods of church observance, was more pronounced in the West than the East especially in Gaul and Spain. In 380 the Council of Saragossa prescribed the faithful to attend church from 17 December to Epiphany in ascetic prayer. This period of three weeks, the beginning of Advent was attributed to St. Hilary of Poitiers who died in 367. Advent only made itself evident in Roman sacramentaries and lectionaries after 650 with a six week period, then reduced to four weeks, of preparation for Christmas. Masses seen in liturgical books for ante natale Domini were a time of preparation for the solemnity of the Coming of the Lord. As the Middle Ages progressed Advent became a period of joyful expectation. The words of prophets like Isaiah became increasingly relevant. There are two patrons of Advent: St John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary. John’s message is to prepare a way for the Lord in our lives, starting with an examination of the way we live and seeking a change towards justice, love and peace. Mary offered to God herself, to bring the incarnate Son of God into the world.
Modern observances of Advent can anticipate Christmas. Some have become part of Church practice. The Carol Service is more likely to have Christmas Carols than Advent carols. Christingle services started in the Moravian Church in 1742 and are very popular among churches of the Reformation in the United Kingdom. How many casual attenders understand its message? The Advent wreath originated among German Lutherans in the 16th century as a home devotion in Advent but has found its way into various Christian denomination’s liturgical worship with a varying number of candles of various colours lit in the liturgy on the Sundays in Advent. A common arrangement is an outer ring of four candles to be lit one each Sunday in Advent (three purple, and one pink for Gaudete Sunday). An appropriate prayer may be said after the lighting of each candle. There can be a central white candle lit on the feast day of Christmas. Recently a wreath of six candles has been devised for the Eastern Orthodox who may wish to use it throughout their longer Advent. The Christmas tree is usually traced back to 1600 Lutheran home customs (but there is evidence of a murderous pagan pre-Christian origin). The Christmas tree made its way to England with Prince Albert in Victorian times with a variety of decorations; candles became replaced with electric lights for safety reasons. Roman Catholics tried to resist but the tree made its way into the Vatican and can now be found in most denominations of churches and cathedrals. Tree festivals have become popular in church, with liberties taken in tracing Christ’s earthly ancestors in the Jesse tree. The Christmas Crib now familiar in churches, cathedrals and most monastic communities is traditionally associated with St. Francis of Assisi. In some countries there can be an expansion of the usual figures, all the tradesmen of the town can be seen, but this usually in private houses not in church. Advent count down in calendars is increasing in popularity.
Advent (Adventus) is a Christian word with a pagan origin; it is a cult used to signify the annual visitation of a divinity coming to their temple to visit their devotees. The same term was used of the imperial visitations when the emperor or important person visited his court as in Adventus Augusti (the coming of Augustus). In early Christian writings Adventus became the classical term for the coming of Christ among us in flesh, for the inauguration of the messianic age; and for his future coming in glory which will crown his work of redemption at the end of time.
From the fifth century Advent was modelled on Lent with fasting, abstinence, prayer and meditation for a period of forty days before the feast of the Nativity. The Gloria is not sung in Advent or in Lent. The liturgical colour for these seasons is purple except for the third Sunday (Gaudete) as with the fourth Sunday in Lent (Laetare) when rose pink vestments may be used as a sign of relaxation and rejoicing. There was a period when black otherwise was worn and some have preferred blue. At the time of Gregory the Great there were five Sundays of Advent but this was reduced to four in the ninth century. In former times there were special days of fasting and abstinence in Advent (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays) but there was great variability. Lessons for the Mass and Offices are especially selected from Isaiah whose writing strikes a compelling note of desire and preparation for the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ revealed as our redeemer. At Vespers the seven great antiphons (the Great O antiphons) begin on the 17th December.
The beautiful words in the Advent prose from Isaiah 45:8 are sung at this season of the year either in Latin or English.
Drop down O heavens from above and let the skies pour down righteousness.
This haunting refrain is sung between verses describing the destruction and desolation in Sion.
Modern scholarship in the West now believes the Book of Isaiah was written in three parts over 200 years (before, during and after the exile into Babylon) so clearly not written by one person; often called first, second and third Isaiah Even so some Eastern Orthodox Churches call Isaiah a (single) saint and he has 9th or 15th May as his saint’s day. The book has been described as the gospel (good news) of the Old Testament, even the ‘fifth gospel’ and the author(s) as the prophet of Advent; a poet, inspired prophet, herald of the good news skilfully edited into one book of the Old Testament (the longest). Isaiah’s name means ‘The Lord who saves’. Its noble style and message make one of the most revered books of the Bible. It is the most quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament apart from the Psalms. St. Jerome wrote that Isaiah describes Christ’s work and teaching as if they had already happened. To him Isaiah had insight into the mysteries of the Church, concluding that Isaiah was more an evangelist than a prophet.
The early section of the book cries out that God had been forsaken, religious rituals carried out without sincerity and with a lack of social justice. Isaiah has a message of hope for humanity as it gives us opportunity to change.
When peaceful silence lay over all and night had run half of her swift course, down from heaven, from the royal throne, leapt your all-powerful Word (Wisdom 18.15).
The Word of God, the Son of God, Our Lord Jesus Christ, is identified as the creative force of God in Christian theology. In the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel we read ‘The word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1.14) possibly the most sacred words in Christian scripture. Through Jesus, God recreates the world and all of those who welcome Him, gives us a new humanity of dignity, compassion and love. Jesus Christ adopts us to become heirs to eternal life as citizens of heaven.
Advent is a time for spiritual awakening; unless we are spiritually awake we are not even half alive and our souls tend unto death. The way we face each day is important. Advent issues us with a spiritual wake-up call, about understanding things and hearing things. It is no good being reflective unless there is a will to change. We need to be in love with life and with God and our fellow human beings. God can co-opt us as his helpers. God enters human history as a fragile child born in adverse circumstances, born to give us hope. Advent is that lonely voice crying in the wilderness of our lives. This hope can give us strength and inspire love. It can shield us against failure and revive our dreams and ideals. We wait in joyful hope for our Lord Jesus Christ to enter our lives, realising the fulfilment to enable our part. It is not a retreat from life’s tensions, sufferings or actions nor a refuge in piety, but an enlargement of mind and heart to be embraced by the mysterious and all loving God.
In the secular world, any austerities and preparations in Advent are forgotten, and a feast of anticipation occurs – of social gatherings in advance of Christmas rather than after in the traditional extended octave. But God enters human history despite what we do, born to give us hope, yet this challenging event is almost being missed by our frenetic activities. He can shield us against failure and revive our dreams and ideals, and restore us in adversity. We enter into the Biblical account, into liturgy and the mystery of the Mass to encounter anew the Living God. This sustains us long after the Feast is completed. The Promise of His Glory (now mainly incorporated into Common Worship Times and Seasons) and other similar books try to provide a framework for public and private worship in Advent, taking us back to the purpose of the spirituality this season. This can include acts of contrition based on the Advent Prose, the Dies Irae or a Litany of Penance.
In the secular world, Advent austerities are forgotten and become a feast of anticipation, in advance of the real event. Commercial exploitation provides bright flashing lights; and when we have paid all we can manage, they are switched off again the day after Christmas, plunging us in the flesh into winter and our souls into a spiritual darkness. Why do we not seek Christ’s Advent to prepare, to erase our failings, and seek to hasten to greet Him in the time appointed. Then our joy at his coming will be real: and may we thereafter be sustained by his presence and his peace.
– Barker, M. Isaiah in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible edited by Dunn, J.D.G. and Rogerson, J.W. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company Cambridge. 2003
– Hays, C. B. Isaiah in Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible edited by Coogan, M.D. Oxford University Press Oxford. 2011.
– Jounel, P. The Christmas Season in the Liturgy and Church at Prayer (Volume 4) edited by Martimort, A.G. Translated by O’Connell, M.J. The Liturgical Press Collegeville Minnesota. 1986
– The Promise of His Glory Church House Publishing London 1991. (Times and Seasons, 2006.)