Daily Meditations

The Fourteenth Day of Christmas Advent. History of the Feast.

History of the Feast

WHEN SOMEONE WE LOVE COMES TO VISIT—when a child returns home for a holiday or an old friend from far away finally comes to town—we are full of anticipation and prepare to receive our guest with joy. We may even clean the house and polish the silver.

So it is with Advent, the season set aside by the ancient Christian communities to prepare for the mystery we are about to celebrate at Christmas: the arrival of God with us, God incarnate.

While our contemporary consumer culture begins the process of celebrating Christmas right after Thanksgiving—with relentless marketing and an endless soundtrack of carols and songs liturgical tradition takes a different approach. In liturgical churches you won’t hear carols or see a Christmas tree in the sanctuary during Advent—those festivities are reserved for Christmas. Advent, by contrast, is a more solemn season of preparation and anticipation. We set aside these weeks to prepare ourselves to receive this great mystery in to our hearts.

In some churches, beginning on the first Sunday of Advent, several changes become evident. According to tradition, the usual “Gloria in Excelsis” in the Sunday liturgy is omitted. Clergy wear robes of purple—the same color worn during Lent—to remind us of the solemn nature of the season.

These changes alert us to the fact that Advent is also a time to practice certain spiritual disciplines. Just as we might clean our house in preparation for the arrival of a special guest, so Church tradition asks us to take stock of our souls and be at our best when the special day arrives.

Christians through the ages have looked upon this combination of celebration and solemnity not as a contradiction, but as a meaningful paradox. The practice of self-discipline during Advent helps us to make more room for joy so that we are fully prepared to receive the Lord when He comes.

The Advent wreath is perhaps the most beloved of many Advent traditions, both in the home and in the church. Wreaths are fashioned out of evergreens and decorated with candles, one for each Sunday leading up to Christmas. Sometimes a candle, representing Christ, is placed in the center of the wreath and is lit at Christmas. Advent wreaths function as a focus for family prayer during these weeks: parents say prayers of preparation for Christ’s arrival, and children often help to light candles in the wreath. Each Sunday candles are lit in order to mark the progression of time and increase our sense of anticipation as we approach the day of Christ’s birth. The candle flame is a reminder of the light that comes into the world at Christmas.

Throughout Advent, Christians prepare their hearts not only for the celebration of Christmas, but also for the many ways that Christ breaks into the world—past, present, and future. We prepare for the celebration of the anniversary of God’s first coming into the world; we prepare for the many ways in which he comes to us now; and we look forward to his future coming in glory at the end of time.

~From GOD WITH US:  Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas, “History of the Feast,” edited by Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe