Christ’s awe-inspiring and apocalyptic depictions of His Second Coming which dot the beginning of our Advent readings often leave the Faithful with more questions than answers. In the same way, an inquiry into the history of Advent leaves one largely bereft of solid evidence and overrun by a heap of unanswered questions.
Nonetheless, this feast which marks the beginning of the Church year has roots in a fascinating number of locations, and their underlying purposes speak volumes to the significance of the season, as we know it.
Much of the framework for what became known as ‘Advent’ really had nothing to do with Christmas at all—because, well, Christmas wasn’t celebrated at that time. Some of the most indicative precursors of Advent can be found in the fourth century, at which time there was a structure of preparation for baptisms which would occur on the Epiphany. Complemented by the writings of Hilary of Poitiers, the Spanish Council of Saragossa in 380 decreed a “three-week Lent” from December 17 to January 6, during which “no one should be absent from church or stay hidden at home or escape to the country or to the mountains or run around in bare feet, but all should come together in church.”
With that being said, this evidence is widely disputed among scholarship, namely on whether this time was even one of preparation, and not just a Christian celebration deliberately placed as a foil during the pagan feast of saturnalia. Contemporary documents, however, also reveal that similar preparatory feasts were occurring for baptisms centered on the newly installed Christmas, which would have overlapped and removed the need for baptism two weeks later at Epiphany.
Also around that time, the beginning of a six-week ‘St. Martin’s Lent’ beginning at November 11 oriented itself to baptisms at the Epiphany and was designed to act as a mirror to Lent before baptism at Easter. Nonetheless, not even this is widely substantiated; later Gallic sources indicate the feast was oriented towards Christmas, not Epiphany. Regardless, the preparation time was focused on baptism, and not specifically on the Incarnation.
The first structured preparation for the Incarnation at Christmas seems to emerge in the writings of Maximus of Turin in 391. He writes of a two-week preparation before Christmas, where the annunciations to Zechariah and Mary (Luke 1:25 and Luke 1:26-38, respectively) were preached on. This piece of evidence fact-checks with the understanding that Annunciation used to be celebrated on the week before Christmas before it was switched with March 25. Despite this two-week anticipatory period, it is not known whether or not this sort of ‘Advent’ extended beyond that. But what is certain is that in the Ambrosian Rite, there will eventually be a six-week preparation before Christmas, similar to the ‘St. Martin’s Lent’ found in Gaul in the Middle Ages.
In Rome, however, it isn’t until Pope Gregory I (590-604) that this six-week preparation is recorded. In the six-week period, the first five weeks were called de adventu, while the Sunday immediately before Christmas was known as Dominica vacat. Oddly enough, Gregory shortened, in that time, the newly born Advent to four weeks because he simply was not aware of the significance of baptismal imagery and the corresponding forty-day period of other traditions within the Church.
This four-week structure of Advent is subsequently exported to areas throughout the Church, but because the placement of Advent was originally accidental, in a way, it was originally understood to mark the conclusion of the liturgical year, not the beginning, as is the modern understanding. But it is in this end that its eschatological orientation provides new meaning.
That as we await our Lord’s birth on Christmas morning, we also await with hope for His triumphant Second Coming—a point that will forever be called a beginning of a new age, not an end.
Featured image courtesy of Stephen Little via Flickr