What’s Advent about?
Ask a Pastor
“Why does the church year begin at Advent? What is the history of Advent?” — From an ELCA Facebook follower
David: In the spring, as we prepare for the festival of Easter, there is a time to prepare ourselves for the celebration. During Lent — originally designed to prepare new Christians for Baptism — the whole church prepares itself for the celebration of the resurrection.
In the same way, Advent began as a time to prepare new Christians for Baptism on Christmas (or Epiphany). It quickly became a time for the whole church to prepare our hearts and lives for the celebration of the incarnation — the coming of God in human form.
The start of the calendar year was often tied to either Christmas or Epiphany (Jan. 6). By the eighth century or so, the celebration of Advent was seen as the beginning of the Christmas cycle, and thus the beginning of the church year.
Brian: The church year begins in Advent because its themes begin the cycle of anticipation, birth, revelation, salvation and discipleship that comprise the whole of the church year.
It's not clear when the church began celebrating Advent, though it was at least as early as the fourth century. It seems to have been a season of preparation for Christmas in the same way Lent (apparently an even older practice) was a season of preparation for Easter. Originally a longer season, it has been celebrated on the four Sundays preceding Christmas for at least a thousand years.
The wreath is an adaptation of an old Northern European custom of adorning a wagon wheel with evergreen branches in the heart of winter, symbolic of the fact that no farm work could be done until the green of growth returned in the spring. Candles were also part of the custom, light shining into the darkest part of the year (in the north). These ancient practices were adapted to Christian piety. As each Sunday moves closer to the shortest day of the year, another candle is lit, symbolizing the hope of the coming light of Christ shining into the darkness of human sin and struggle.
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