All About the Season of Advent
Advent Definition and Summary
Advent is the (roughly) four-week season before Christmas when many Christians commemorate the first coming of Christ and anticipate His second coming. Advent can begin on any date between (and including) November 27 and December 3. See Advent dates in our moveable feasts calendar.
Prayers: Advent Prayers
Basic Facts About Advent
Liturgical Color(s): Violet (optional: Rose for this Sunday of Advent, also called "Gaudete Sunday")
Type of Holiday: Season; Fast
Time of Year: Roughly four weeks before Christmas; begins the Sunday after Christ the King Sunday
Duration: Four Sundays and their weeks, ending at Christmas Eve
Celebrates/Symbolizes: Jesus' first and second comings
Alternate Names: N/A
Scriptural References: Isaiah 2:1-5,7:10-14, Jeremiah 33:14-16, Zephaniah 3:14-18, Micah 5:2-5, Matthew 24:37-44, Romans 13:11-14
The word "advent," from the Latin adventus (Greek parousia), means "coming" or "arrival." The Advent Season is focused on anticipating the arrival of Jesus as Messiah (Christ or King).
The worship, scripture readings, and prayers not only prepare us spiritually for Christmas (His first coming), but also for His second coming. This is why the Scripture readings during Advent include both Old Testament passages related to the expected Messiah and New Testament passages concerning Jesus' second coming as judge of all. Also, passages about John the Baptist, the precursor who prepared the way for the Messiah, are read. All of these themes are present in Catholic worship during Advent, which the Catechism succinctly describes:
When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior's first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor's birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: "He must increase, but I must decrease" (524).
Advent beings the liturgical year – the first Sunday of Advent each year is like the liturgical "New Year's Day." Advent is not part of the Christmas season itself, but a preparation for it. Thus, Catholics do not sing Christmas hymns or use Christmas readings in Mass until December 25, the first day of the Christmas season.
The official color for Advent is violet (except for the Third Week of Advent, often called Gaudete Sunday, in which rose may be used), and the season is somewhat penitential, similar to Lent, although not so explicitly so. The character of worship during Advent is solemn, quiet, and less festive than during other times of the year. In the Catholic Church, for example, the Gloria in Excelsis is not used. The use of violet reflects the general themes of Advent: penitence (generally expressed more in terms of expectant hope) and royalty. Some prominent feasts fall within the season of Advent, including the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Secular culture and many non-Catholic churches celebrate the day of Christmas but take it outside of the context of Advent and Christmastide. However, Christmas is not meant to be an isolated day, but a festival of the Incarnation in the midst of the Church year. Christmas is only properly understood after having the preparation provided by Advent. In the midst of the secular excesses leading up to Christmas, Advent provides a welcome solace and an opportunity to continually reorient ourselves to God's will as we expectantly wait with patriarchs, prophets, and kings for the true meaning of Christmas: the Incarnation of God the Son.
The New Testament identifies Jesus as the expected Jewish Messiah, although Jesus was not the Messiah most Jews at the time expected: a warrior who would forcibly overthrow the Romans. The Gospel writers are clear that Jesus did not come to establish an earthly kingdom or deliver the Jewish people from the Romans, but rather He proclaimed a heavenly kingdom available to Jew and Gentile alike. Even though early Christians understood that Jesus reigned in the Church, they knew that all things had not been subjected fully to Him, so Christians understood that there existed a future finalization of His kingdom (see Catechism 680). Thus, early Christians eagerly awaited the return of Jesus in glory "to achieve the definitive triumph of good over evil," when He would judge the living and the dead (Catechism 681, 682). These prominent scriptural themes form the basis of our Advent season.
The first clear reference to a celebration of Advent occurs in the sixth century. Prior to this time, there were celebrations and fasts resembling our current Advent season. Saint Hilary of Poitiers (d. AD 367) and the Spanish Council of Saragossa (AD 380) spoke of a three-week fast before Epiphany. Pope Saint Leo the Great preached many homilies about "the fast of the tenth month (i.e., December)" prior to Christmas. The Gelasian Sacramentary (AD 750) provided liturgical material for the five Sundays before Christmas as well as Wednesdays and Fridays. The Western Church eventually settled on four Sundays of Advent, which has the season beginning at the very end of November or the very beginning of December, starting immediately after Ordinary Time. Until the 12th century, in many geographical areas Advent had a more festive tone, and white vestments were still occasionally used. However, Advent became more closely related to Lent as Christ's second coming became more and more a prominent Advent theme, as especially seen in the seventh century Bobbio Missal. Advent proper is unknown in the East, although the Eastern Churches have a long fast before Christmas. This fast lasts longer than the Western Advent season and begins in mid-November. Advent, or the Eastern equivalent fast, is celebrated in all Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
During the Reformation, some Protestants attacked or de-emphasized many Christian holy days and seasons, disconnecting their Churches from the rhythms of the Church year. However, some Reformation churches, like the Anglicans, retained Advent. Possibly because of the liturgical movement, or maybe as a reaction to the excesses of secular Christmas values, celebrating Advent has become more popular in non-Catholic and non-Orthodox churches. Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and even many evangelical groups have incorporated Advent into their worship services to varying degrees. However, some Churches have fallen short of celebrating the true meaning of Advent, treating the season as more of an early extension of Christmas. As non-Catholics and non-Orthodox begin to rediscover the Church year, Advent (like Lent) is one of the first results, flowing naturally from Churches looking to fill in the gaps around Christmas and Easter.
Worship And Prayer Resources
Advent Wreath Prayers and Readings
Advent Prayers of the Faithful I
Eastern Hymns for the Pre-Feast of the Nativity
Traditions and Symbols
Traditions: Lighting of the Advent wreath, Advent calendars, Baking of bread for Christmas, Jesse Tree, Hanging of the greens
Symbols Advent wreath; violet, pink, and white candles; empty throne; rising sun; prophecy; scroll; dew falling from heaven, the color violet (purple)
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Is Advent Christmas?
2. Is it wrong to put Christmas decorations up, etc., during Advent? Nowadays, the problem is putting up Christmas decorations during Hallowe'en! But anyway... the answer to this question depends on whom you ask, and what your conscience dictates. We have heard arguments on both sides, and find merit in each. We suggest that if you put up Christmas decorations before Christmas, make sure that you recognize the importance of the Advent season, too. Christmas trees, Christmas decorations, and other Christmas activities, like office parties, do not necessarily detract from the mood of Advent, so long as they do not cause us to forget the penitential and expectant tone of Advent. However, if these activities drown out Advent, then it is best to hold off on them until the official Christmas season. Since most secular and Christian Westerners celebrate Christmas before Christmas Day, observing Advent properly is difficult. On the other hand, denying oneself the joys of looking at Christmas lights, going to Christmas gatherings, or buying gifts before Christmas, just because it is not technically Christmas, strikes us as a bit extreme. Perhaps a middle way is to focus primarily on observing Advent, while making exceptions for Christmas-related activities when appropriate.
There are many interesting activities for individuals and families during Advent. One popular devotion is the Advent wreath. Some people put up Advent decorations, including an "Advent tree" a pine tree with purple lights, purple bows, and other Advent-related items. On Christmas Eve, the decorations and lights are changed to reflect the Christmas season. Others put up a Nativity set without the Christ child, adding Him on Christmas Day (and adding the Wise Men on Epiphany). Basically, we must be aware that the Advent season calls us to simplicity and penitence, and it is wise to always consider this when planning activities during December before Christmas Day.
3. What is Gaudete Sunday?
4. Why does my church use the color blue during Advent? Good question. We have heard many reasons why blue is now a popular Advent liturgical color. One is that blue symbolizes the pre-dawn light. Another reason is that blue is the color of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A third reason is that many churches are trying to distance themselves from the penitential nature of past Advent celebrations, and blue is as close as you can get to violet without being violet. Also, in many places the purple dye used to make Advent vestments and linens was closer to a blue-violet hue than straight violet. Possibly, this eventually led churches in many regions to adopt blue as an Advent color. The last possibility is that blue is a pretty color and offers more variety of color to the limited number of liturgical colors. Regardless, in the Catholic Church, blue is not an approved liturgical color, for Advent or any other season, and it should not be the primary color in any Catholic liturgical celebration.
This page written by Jonathan Bennett and David Bennett.