Advent is from the Latin word “Adventus” which means “to arrive.”
Every year during Advent, we look forward to the arrival of our Savior, Jesus the Christ; therefore, Advent is the season of anticipation. Of course, we know Christ is coming as Christmas is right around the corner. But this is also a time of anticipation of his return in his second coming when our Lord will reestablish the proper order of creation with a new heaven and a new earth.
When and how did the church start this season of anticipation?
The origins of the season of Advent are not clear. But one of the earliest references to Advent is found in the Council of Saragossa in 380AD.
At that time, it was a season leading up to Epiphany. In 581, the Council of Macon established fasting to be observed on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from the feast of St. Martin of Tours (in early November) until Christmas. Sometime later, Gregory the 7th (d. 1095) reduced Advent to four weeks. In the ninth century, the first week of Advent was designated as the first day of the church year.
Through the ages, practices and observances surrounding Advent varied, and in much of the church, Advent was ignored. At the Second Vatican Council 1962-1965, the emphasis of Advent was altered from a season of penitence (as is Lent) to a season of hope and anticipation.
The Colors of Advent
The liturgical colors for Advent are purple or blue. Purple reminds us of the royal robe placed on Jesus to mock him as he was being beaten, but little did those Roman soldiers know that they were proclaiming the truth; the man they beat was the King of Kings. The purple of Advent also reminds us of Lent. The child of Bethlehem, our Savior, Jesus, was born to live perfection in our place, to suffer, die, rise from the dead and ascend into Heaven for us and our salvation.
The color blue helps us to remember that Jesus is the Son of God, born of Mary. The color of Mary is blue. But lest we go off the rails and toss the beautiful blue paraments out the door, let us remember that because Jesus is born of Mary, he is one of us, God in the flesh. To confess that Mary is the “Theotokos,” the God-Bearer, is to acknowledge that Mary is indeed the mother of God. The divine nature and the human nature of Jesus cannot be separated, so where there is one, the other is to be found. Jesus is God and man, so Mary, being the mother of Jesus, is the mother of God. Some will chafe at such a word. It is not to say that Mary is greater than or even equal to the Trinity, but she was the vehicle through which Jesus entered the world, using her DNA and all.
The Advent Wreath
What about that wreath with three purple or blue candles and one pink candle? Where did that wreath come from, and what is it about?
The Advent wreath first dates back to 16th century Germany, but not in the way that we currently know it. We owe a German Pastor a debt of gratitude for what we have now.
In 1839, Pastor Johann Wichern, who did mission work among the poor, taught children who were excited about the coming Christmas to wait with eagerness. He created a wreath and placed nineteen small red and four large candles on it. Every morning they lit one of the little ones, and every Sunday, they would light another large one. Our custom has retained the four large candles.
The wreath, of course, is a circle, representing that God is eternal and that Advent will return again next year if Christ doesn’t return before it. The evergreens in the wreath signify a never dying life and our hope in Christ. The pinecones in many wreaths add a crown effect as we celebrate the coming of our King. As we contemplate the reason for which he came, we also contemplate the crown of thorns he wore before taking up his crown of glory again.
The four candles – three blue or purple and one pink or rose – remind us that Jesus is the light of the world that no darkness can overcome. They warm our hearts with the Gospel of Christ Jesus and bring hope. The third Sunday of Advent is when the pink (rose) candle is to be lit. The third Sunday is called “Gaudete,” which means to rejoice. We are given to rejoice in this season of anticipation, for our King is coming with love and mercy. He bore our judgment as he took it all upon himself.
Many churches also have a Christ Candle in the middle of the wreath, which is lit on Christmas eve and/or Christmas morning, announcing that our salvation has come, even as Christ came and will come again and yet also comes to us daily with his mercy and grace, but especially with his mercy through the means of grace – Word and Sacrament.
There is so much more that could be said about Advent, and I encourage you to do some homework on it yourself.
In the meantime, feel free to sing my favorite verse from O Come, O Come, Immanuel:
O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto Your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell, your people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.