Seasons of the Church: What is Advent?

ADVENT, which begins the church year, is a season of preparation for the Lord’s coming. The season consists of the four Sundays before Christmas, and may begin on the last Sunday of November or the first Sunday of December, concluding with Christmas Eve.

In many ways, Advent is similar to Lent, the season before Easter. Since many churches hold baptisms on Christmas and Easter, the seasons leading up to these events are used as preparation time for the baptismal candidates, with times for prayer, penance, study and fasting. Hence, the general tone of Advent is one of spiritual preparation and anticipation of redemption, as related in the popular 12th century hymn:

“O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear”

ADVENT derives from the Latin word: adventus which means “coming” or “approach”.

For churches that use a common lectionary, texts are read from scriptures that speak of Christ’s Second Coming in Final Victory. However, we stress the implications of this hope for present living, not endless speculations about when Christ might return – “Be aware, Keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:33 NRSV).
This Sunday emphasizes the role of John the Baptist, as the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord’” (Matthew 3:3 NIV). While the “wilderness” may be physically barren, it also recalls us to the place where we are closest to God (Jeremiah 2:2-3).
The third Sunday recalls how John the Baptist preached repentance in anticipation of the Messiah (Christ): “every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9 NIV). John recognised that he was not even worthy to untie Christ’s sandal (John 1:20), for Christ would baptise “with the Holy Spirit and fire”(Luke 3:16).
This Sunday emphasises the final events before the coming of Jesus – Mary’s conception by the Holy Spirit and Joseph’s dream (Matthew 1:18-24; Luke 1:26-38), and the meeting between Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:39-45).

Advent concludes with Christmas Eve, which is the 24th of December. It has traditionally been a high holy night, including the midnight “Christ Mass” in Catholic parishes. Most protestant churches continue to hold special worship services on Christmas Eve with songs and messages about the birth of Jesus and God’s gift of salvation.

As with other seasons of the year, Advent is enriched by the many layers of Christian tradition, symbolism and messages. Advent is a season for:

  • preaching on Christ’s second coming,
  • preaching on the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus’ birth
  • preparation for Christ’s spiritual coming into human hearts and communities, symbolised by the birth of Jesus in a stable feed-box in the midst of Roman occupied Palestine.
  • frequently a time of increased charitable giving and volunteering
  • For many Singapore Christians it is a special time for evangelism with Christmas caroling and special events.

Churches frequently have Christmas pageants, musical or dramatic re-enactments of the story of Christmas. While these special events may be scheduled throughout Advent, the weekly gathering of believers ought to be different than a gathering of shoppers. Pastors, worship leaders and musicians should carefully choose hymns and songs that compliment the tone of Advent: our need of a saviour, anticipation of the Day of the Lord, repentance and holiness. An example is Charles Wesley’s Advent hymn: “Come, thou long expected Jesus”, first published in 1744, set to Rowland Prichard’s majestic Hyfrydol tune:

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.

Purple and blue are both royal colours and colours of penance in the west.

VISUALS (just a few):

  • Advent Wreath – Five candles, set in a circle of four purple, or three purple and one rose colour, candles, and central white one representing Christ. Traditional set in an evergreen wreath.
  • Chrismon Tree (evergreen tree covered with white monograms of Christ)
  • Jesse Tree (a tree with signs of the ancestors of Christ)