Advent: Close Encounters of the Liturgical Kind
Chris Armstrong (an editor at Christian History magazine) has written a good little history of the Advent season. He writes about how, for many evangelicals, Advent is the one real taste of liturgy they get every year. Perhaps our enjoyment of Advent traditions can inform the way we worship through the rest of the year? An excerpt:
Once upon a time, in 4th- and 5th-century Gaul and Spain, "Advent" was a preparation not for Christmas but for Epiphany. Epipha-what? That's the early-January celebration of such diverse events in Jesus's life as his Baptism, the miracle at Cana, and the visit of the Magi. In those days, Epiphany was set aside as an opportunity for new Christians to be baptized and welcomed into the church. So believers spent Advent's forty days examining their hearts and doing penance.
It was not until the 6th century that Christians in Rome began linking this season explicitly to the coming of Christ. But at that time, and for centuries after, the "coming" that was celebrated was not the birth of Jesus, but his Second Coming. It was not until the Middle Ages that the church began using the Advent season to prepare to celebrate Christ's birth. And even then, this newer sense of the Lord's "advent" or coming did not supplant the older sense-the Second Coming. And the muted, Lent-like mood of penitential preparation remained alongside the joyous anticipation of Jesus' birthday.
So, the modern liturgy divides Advent into a period, through December 16th, during which the focus is Christ's Second Coming, and a period, from December 17th to the 24th, focusing on His birth. It starts with sobering passages and prayers about the apocalyptic return of the Lord in judgment. Then it moves to Old Testament passages foretelling the birth of a messiah and New Testament passages trumpeting John the Baptist's exhortations and the angels' announcements.