This Sunday we begin the season of Advent, the time of preparation for both the feast of Christmas and the final coming of Christ in power and glory, as well as the start of the new liturgical year. The calendar this year gives us a short Advent season, just three full weeks, since the fourth Sunday of Advent falls on Christmas Eve.
You might be surprised to learn that of all the observances in our liturgical year (including worship on Sundays, Easter and Eastertide, Lent, Pentecost, Christmas, and Epiphany), Advent was the latest season to emerge in the early Church. Moreover, its origins are unclear. It might have come from late 4th-century Spain, when a council reminded the faithful to go to church, especially during Lent and during the period from December 17 to January 6. Or it might have originated in late 5th-century Gaul with the practice of “St. Martin’s Lent” – a time of fasting three times per week from St. Martin’s feast on November 11 until Christmas. Or it may have come from one of the quarterly Roman fasts, the “fast of the tenth month.” In any case, by the middle of the 6th-century, Advent was well established in Rome.
You might also be surprised to learn that in the 7th-century Gelasian Sacramentary, Advent was put at the end of the liturgical year, while Christmas was at the beginning. In this scheme, Advent wasn’t related to Christmas at all – it just came before it chronologically. This might be why so many of the Advent texts are about the end times.
As we prepare for the festivities of Christmas, it can be jarring to hear these readings about end times and fear and judgement – readings we might think of as “texts of terror.” But the readings contain seeds of joyful expectation as well, making them also “texts of promise.” Our understanding of Advent today finds both views held in a tension that is slowly resolved as we get closer to the hopefulness found in many of the Christmas readings.
But until then, for the next few weeks of Advent, we will live in this in-between place. We are preparing for the coming of Christ, but he is not here yet. In our scripture readings and indeed in the world around us, we live in both a place of fear and even terror as well as in a place of hope and promise. The challenge of the season is to take both seriously, and to sit quietly with the contradictions without rushing to resolve them too quickly. It is time to both rest and to keep awake.
May we accept the challenge of living in this place of tension, in this time of being betwixt and between. And may we all have a deep and meaningful Advent!