The word Advent means Coming. Therefore, its orientation is towards the feast of Christmas. Historically Christmas preceded Advent. We have hints of the beginnings of Advent in the 300’s and 400’s mainly in the Northern parts of Europe where the liturgy was celebrated not in the Roman way but in ways more similar to the Eastern Churches.
There was sometimes an emphasis on the period between 17 to 25 December and beyond that to the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. We also find hints of periods of four weeks of preparation and sometimes of six weeks. In the Archdiocese of Milan which has its own liturgical customs, a six-week Advent is still celebrated.
In Rome, Advent received its basic shape from Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great). He was Pope from 590-604. He settled on a four-week Advent and chose many of the Scripture texts we still use and wrote some of the prayers we still use. Advent was divided into two periods: the first from the First Sunday of Advent to 16 December and the second period from 17 -24 December. It was a novena of days up to Christmas.
The first period links the promises of the old testament with their fulfilment in the life of Jesus and looks towards the final fulfilment of the promises at the end of time; and the second period centres on especially pointed indications of Christ’s coming and on the gospel narratives leading up to his birth.
The whole dynamic of the season naturally culminates in the celebration of Christmas, the Coming which is his birth. This utterly new and unexpected way in which God is with us: his coming to us as one who shares our very flesh and blood.
By Fr Frank O’Loughlin
Image Credit: Saint Gregory the Great, Pope; Francisco Goya (1746–1828)