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For hundreds of years, Christians have been celebrating what is called the Advent season. Advent is related to, but not the same as Christmas.
Advent, in the Western Christian traditions, kicks off the Christian liturgical year. We have documented evidences of the celebration of Advent as early as the 300s and definitely by the 400s.
So what is Advent?
Well, Advent comes from the Latin word—adventus. Adventus, which means coming, is the Latin translation of the Greek word parousia. The word parousia is the word that the Greek writers and/or translators of the Scriptures used in reference to the Second Coming of Jesus. This word is found in notable passages like Matthew 24 where Jesus discusses the signs of His coming and in the epistles to Thessalonica that discuss the nature and timing of His second coming.
Thus, the Advent season among early Christians had an original focus on the Second Coming. Christians focused their attentions on what it means to wait for and anticipate the glorious second coming of their Lord Jesus Christ.
So how did the modern Advent liturgy come about?
Well, the truth is we don’t know.
We do know that the poetry of waiting for Messiah are all over the Scriptures, and that the celebrations and rites are rich with the images of the Nativity of Jesus today. Advent piety starts becoming widespread around the fourth century which implies that Advent customs are older and could stem into the 200s. Some have claimed that the apostles began the customs, but that is impossible to verify.
Interestingly enough, we find that once Christianity became legally recognized and prevalent in Europe, they had to figure out ways to prepare mass converts for baptism. In the Eastern traditions, it was customary for people to be baptized at Epiphany. Epiphany fell on January 6 and it was the day Syrian Christians celebrated Christ’s birth. Spain and Gaul who borrowed much of their rites from the East began to observe a period of fasting in preparation for baptism that was concurrent with their celebrations of Christ’s Birth on Epiphany.
By the mid-fifth century in Ravenna, Italy we find many Christians using Advent to focus on the incarnation of Christ. Pope Gregory the Great in early 600s established four Sundays of Advent that now focused on the birth of Jesus rather than the second coming. But Irish missionaries revived the last-days penitence of the Advent season by preaching sermons that emphasized the Lord’s last day judgment.
Thus, by the time of the renowned theologian Bernard of Clairvaux who lived in the 1100s, Christians have spoken of the three comings of Christ: in the flesh in Bethlehem, in our hearts daily, and in glory at the end of time.
So when Christians sing O Come O Come Emmanuel, What Child Is This, and Gloria in Excelsis Deo they sing it with an immense depth of emotion.
Now, in today’s United States of America, the Advent season’s significance can get a bit muddied with the commercial enterprise that is Christmas. Beyond that, there are many who like to pipe up to share how pagan in origin are some of the elements of Advent and/or Christmas celebrations. I know because I used to be one of them.
And while it is true that the Christian church co-opted existing celebrations of the birth of light at the Winter Solstice from various pagan religions, I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to discount the celebration of Advent.
It’s easy to pick on something so immense and so obviously-hijacked in meaning as is Advent. But we have to recognize that almost all—if not all—Christian religious practices carry the same characteristics that Advent does. Many conscientious Christians would like to believe that their Christian practices are altogether biblical; however, the reality is that most practices today may be biblically-inspired, but have been either commercialized, hijacked, or infused with non-Biblical customs. This goes from the manner in which people pray, to the way church services are constructed, and right down to the way people think the Bible should be read.
So what are we supposed to make of all this?
I think Advent is beautiful.
Advent is beautiful because taking some time to remember the first coming of the Messiah and sit with the promises of the soon to return Messiah is good.
And Advent is beautiful because the way it came to be is the story of all Christian practices. Advent tells the story of how some people took the images and themes of the Scriptures and tried to develop liturgies from them that would make cultural sense to their audiences; these were changed and modified for centuries, and everyone from churches and empires and countrysides and American poets and Coca-Cola marketing teams have had their say in it. And for as long as Western civilizations continue, the voices and modifications will continue.
But none of that has changed nor will change what Advent is—a season that offers the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, and to be alert for his Second Coming.
 Philip H. Pfatteicher wrote in his book, Jounrey in the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year