14 December 2011

Advent: a time of preparation for the coming of Christ

The Jesse Tree illustrated in the West Window in Christ Church, Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

It is very difficult to prepare for Christmas when Santa has already arrived in every shopping centre here in Ireland, when the Christmas lights are already strung across the Main Street in every city, town and village, and many of our parish choirs are already singing Christmas Carols. Indeed, it is hard to distinguish between Advent and Lent when you find Cadbury’s crème eggs are already on sale.

But even in the Church, we often manage to confuse Advent and Lent, probably because they are both seasons of preparation when we change the liturgical colour from Green to Purple or Violet.

The word Advent, from the Latin word adventus, means “coming.” That Latin word is simply a translation of the Greek word παρουσία (parousía), used for the Second Coming of Christ.

This season is a reminder of the original waiting for the coming of the Messiah. But more especially it is a reminder of our waiting for Christ at his the Second Coming. This season, which begins this year on 27 November, the First Sunday of Advent, is the season when the Church marks a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of Christ, not just as a cuddly child in the Christmas crib, but his coming in glory and as king.

Throughout the four weeks of Advent, the readings, collects, post-communion prayers and the other seasonal liturgical provisions try to focus us on Christ’s incarnation, but more particularly (if less successfully) on Christ’s coming judgment and reign.

Because of that, the “Four Last Things” – Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell – have been traditional themes for Advent meditation. The characteristic emphasis in Advent, therefore, is expectation, rather than penitence.

Purple is not a penitential colour ... it is a rich, royal imperial colour, originally derived from a very rare source. Πορφύρα (porphyra), the rare purple dye from Tyre, could command its weight in silver and was manufactured in classical antiquity from a mucus secreted by the spiny dye-murex snail. As a seller of purple, Lydia was a wealthy woman of independent means. And as Judith Herrin points out in her study of the powerful woman of Byzantium, Women in Purple, a child born to a reigning emperor was πορφυρογέννητος (porphyrogénitos), “born in the purple.”

So, we change our liturgical colour in Advent to purple to signify that we are preparing for the coming of Christ as the King of Kings, the ruler of all, in all his royal, imperial, majesty, splendour and glory.

Although comparisons are often made with Lent, Advent is a time of preparation rather than a time of penitence, Lent too is a time of preparation for the completion of Christ’s majestic task, seen in his passion, death, burial and Resurrection. It was a time too, in the Early Church, of preparation for baptism, which required penitence and repentance and μετάνοια (metánoia), conversion, turning round to face Christ.

Today’s office parties, Christmas lunches, early Santas, hastily-planned carol services, and bringing the last posting day forward to the week before Advent, make it difficult to sustain this sense of being alert and watchful. Yet, can you remember with glee and warmth the child-like waiting and watching you experienced during the build-up for Christmas? In the cold and dark of winter, can you remember that warm glow you felt as you anticipated such a wonderful festival?

Popular observances

Christmas celebrations were suppressed from 1620 on in many New England colonies by the Puritans, who argued that Christmas celebrations had no Scriptural mandate. Those who tried to “to make merry” and play games at Christmas-time were reprimanded and offenders were fined.

In England, laws suppressing Christmas were enforced under Cromwell, with Parliament passing laws in 1644 and 1647 abolishing the observance of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun. All shops and markets were to stay open throughout 25 December, and no church services were to be held on that day. Mince pies, holly and other popular customs were victims of the Puritan attempt to eradicate last remnants of merry-making over the Christmas period.

But despite the threat of fines and punishment, many continued to celebrate Christmas in secret and to go to church. It is said that some of our popular Christmas songs developed from this time as a form of secretly teaching the stories surrounding Christmas, including: On the first day of Christmas.

These laws were repealed in England at the restoration in 1660. The common people were once again allowed to mark the Twelve Days of Christmas. Old traditions were revived with renewed enthusiasm and Christmas was celebrated throughout the country as both a religious and secular festival.

The laws were repealed in New England in 1681, but Christmas only became a Federal holiday in the US as recently as 1870.

In recent times, the most common, popular observances of Advent are the Advent Calendar the Advent Wreath, with one door being opened in the calendar, or one new candle being lit on the Advent Wreath each day or each week leading up to Christmas Eve. But several customs can help the Church to restore and build up that sense of anticipation, of watching and waiting, to cheerfully inviting people into a time and space for praying in joyful anticipation.

The Advent Calendar

The Advent Calendar has its origins among German Lutherans, and may have been a family practice in German-speaking places from the 17th century on. The first known Advent Calendar was handmade in 1851, the first printed Advent calendar was produced in Hamburg in 1902 or 1903, and the first commercially produced Advent Calendar was produced in Munich in 1908. The custom spread from Germany after World War II.

An Advent calendar allows us to count or celebrate the days of Advent, and to build up an anticipation of Christmas. Today, most Advent calendars are made for children. But they could be for adults too, opening each day to reveal an image, a prayer, a poem, a Scripture text or part of a story related to the Nativity.

The Advent Wreath

The Advent wreath in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Advent wreath is said to have been the idea of Johann Heinrich Wichern (1808-1881), a German pastor and a pioneer in urban mission work among the poor in Hamburg. The custom spread from Germany to Britain in the 19th century and to North America in 1930s.

A new candle is lit in church each week, followed by a Bible reading or selected prayers. In most Anglican churches today, there are three purple candles and one pink candle in a ring, with a white or gold candle in the centre. The purple candles reflect the liturgical colour of the season, while pink marks the Third Sunday of Advent, when that colour change briefly to pink. There are many traditions about the meaning or theme of each candle. But the five traditional themes are:

Advent 1: The Patriarchs (Purple);
Advent 2: The Prophets (Purple);
Advent 3: John the Baptist (Pink);
Advent 4: The Virgin Mary (Purple);
Christmas Day: The Christ (White or Gold).

In this way, each Sunday reminds us of those who prepared for the coming of Christ. The pink candle on the Third Sunday comes from the mediaeval tradition of adopting a splash of colour on Gaudate Sunday or ‘Rose Sunday,’ reflecting the traditions surrounding Laetare Sunday (Refreshment Sunday), the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

The accumulation of light Sunday-by-Sunday is an expression of the growing anticipation of the birth of Christ, the light of the world.

The Jesse Tree

The Jesse Tree is a popular teaching aid in many Anglican parishes, although the earliest example probably dates from the 11th century.

The Tree of Jesse depicts the Ancestors of Christ in a tree that rises from Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of King David. But it is also inspired by that passage from Isaiah: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots,” (Isaiah 11: 1).

The lineage of Jesus is traced by two Gospel writers, Matthew and Luke. The figures in a Jesse Tree are drawn from the genealogies in the Gospels, although usually showing only a selection. In many churches, the traditional Jesse Tree is decorated over the course of Advent with symbols representing stories leading up to the Incarnation – for example, a burning bush for Moses, a ram for Isaac or a crown for David.

Christingle Services:

The Moravian custom of a Christingle service become more widespread in the late 20th century, and are a good resource for Advent.

The Advent Prose:

The Advent Prose, the Advent Antiphons, or the Great Advent “O Antiphons,” form the basis for each verse of the popular Advent hymn, O come, O come, Emmanuel. These antiphons, all beginning with “O ...,” were sung before and after the Canticle Magnificat at Vespers from 17 to 24 December, the seven days before Christmas.

They are addressed to God, calling on him to come as teacher and deliverer, and woven through with scriptural titles and images describing God’s saving work in Christ.

This tradition was developed in the Sarum Rite in mediaeval England, and was reflected in the Book of Common Prayer, where the Anglican Reformers retained the title O Sapientia (‘O Wisdom’) as the designation for 16 December.

Advent carols

It is from this tradition that we have derived one of the best-known Advent carols, O Come O Come Emmanuel. But there are other special Advent carols and hymns for this season.

Saint Nicholas:

Finally, it is worth reminding ourselves that Saint Nicholas has his feast day on 6 December, not on 25 December. He is an important pre-Christmas figure, and not because of he is roly-poly figure hijacked by Coca-Cola and advertising. His willingness to travel, even when his own life was at risk, makes him a role model for the church in mission.

As Bishop Nicholas of Myra he was a key defender of Trinitarian dogma at the Council of Nicaea (325). The stories of his bringing the victims of murder back to life is a reminder that Christmas is without meaning unless it is related to and connected with Good Friday and Easter Day, that the significance of the Incarnation is to be found in our Redemption and the Resurrection.

As a bishop who was the protector of vulnerable children and teenagers to point of risking his own place in society, Saint Nicholas is an important challenge to some of the ways the whole church has handled some recent difficulties.

As the free-giver of gifts, without expecting anything in return, Saint Nicholas is a reminder that God’s love is given freely and unconditionally at the Incarnation in his Son, Christ Jesus ... and what better sermon could we preach in the Season of Advent.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

This four-page feature and these photographs are published in the current edition of Koinonia (Advent 2011, volume 5, Issue 13), pp 3-6. Kononia is published quarterly at Saint James Anglican Church, Kansas City, Missouri.

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