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The word Advent comes from the Latin words, advenire (to come to) & adventus (an arrival), and refers to Christ's coming into this world. The Advent season is a time of joyful expectation and preparation for Christmas, the day upon which Christ's birth is celebrated and His first coming into this world. The focus of Advent is upon the centuries of waiting and preparation by God's chosen people which preceded the coming of the Messiah. As such, it is a time marked by expectation, hope, preparedness and penance. The later being mindful of John the Baptist's cry to prepare for the coming of the Lord with repentance. ( Matt. 3:3, 11:10; Mark 1:2-3; Luke 1:17, 1:76, 3:4).

Also, while Advent is the season before Christmas, the focus of Advent is by no means limited to just Christ's first coming. An equal, if not more important, theme found in the Advent Liturgy is the Second Coming of Christ when He comes again to judge the world. The Advent Liturgy looks to both the past and future. In the past Christ came amongst us as one of our own. He was born of a woman into this world and of humble means. In the future He will come again, not as a defenseless infant, but as the Judge of all the living and the dead. Thus the Liturgy looks back over thousands of years to when the human race waited for its Redeemer and then to the future when this world will end and He will come then as our Judge. This dual theme, the first and second coming, is easily observed in the hymns for Advent given below. Also, while it is not part if the Advent Liturgy today, it is useful to note that Dies Irae was originally not a hymn associated with death and burial, but a hymn that was composed as a sequence for the first Sunday in Advent. Its sober tone was designed to remind us of both Christ's first coming and His Second Coming at the end of the world.

Lastly, it should be mentioned that tradition holds that there are four comings of Christ. The first two of these have already been mentioned. His first coming was when He came to us in the flesh. His Second Coming is when He will come at the end of world to judge the living and the dead. However, between these two are two more; Christ's coming into our hearts, and Christ's coming to us at our death. The Advent Liturgy notes all four. The whole purpose of Advent is one of preparedness for this fourfold coming.

It is difficult to pinpoint in time exactly when Advent was first celebrated by the Church. Advent itself is the season prior to Christmas and is thus intimately acquainted with the celebration of Christ's birth. Since the celebration of Christ's birth has evolved over time, so too has the season of Advent. The earliest documentation we have on the season comes to us from the fourth century and the earliest Advent hymns we have come from roughly that period as well (Prudentius). It is thus clear that at least the roots of the Advent season go back to sometime around the later part of the fourth century. By the late sixth century the season is well established at least in the Latin West. St. Caesarius, Bishop of Arles (502-542) mentions a time of preparation before the celebration of Christ's birth in his homilies. A sermon given by Pope St. Gregory the Great on the Second Sunday of Advent has come down to us as well. Advent was evidentially a western tradition before it became an eastern tradition. It is not until the eighth century that we have the first record of the season being celebrated in the East.

Today Advent signals the beginning of the Church year and begins on the Sunday closest to the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle (November 30). This Sunday is the fourth Sunday before Christmas and falls between November 27 and December 3. The Advent season will thus have between 21 and 28 days, depending upon where this Sunday falls.

In as much as Advent is the season of preparation, it is very much a time of penance. It is regrettable today that the penitential dimension to Advent seems to have been largely forgotten by many Christians. Today, Christmas decorations go up after Thanksgiving (if not before) and Christmas parties begin shortly thereafter. Penance and the word Advent seem to have become an oxymoron in today's holiday rush. It has not always been so and this is really a relatively recent development of the 20th century. As almost anyone born early in the 20th century will tell you, Christmas decorations and parties were generally limited to just that, the Christmas season. The decorations did not come up until Christmas Eve and then stayed up for the entire Christmas season which lasts for 12 days, from Christmas to Epiphany. Parties started after Christmas, not before. The popular song, the Twelve Days of Christmas, echoes some of this traditional mode of celebration. Today it is not uncommon to see Christmas trees readied for trash pickup the next day and the only Christmas season party is the one held on New Year's Eve, which is hardly a Christ-centered celebration.

In as much as Advent is a penitential season and fasting is invariably a part of traditional penitential disciplines which date back to the Old Testament, fasting has been a part of Advent from very early times. It is regrettable that the point of fasting is often forgotten these days. Fasting has a twofold objective. By abstaining from a legitimate pleasure of some sort, one is strengthening one's self control in preparation for the day in which serious temptation may have to be faced. Fasting is push-ups for the will, so to speak. Secondly, in choosing food as the item to abstain from, money is saved that otherwise would have been spent on more expensive foods. Such savings were intended to go to the poor as alms (Tob. 12:8-10). Thus the penitential fast of Advent was used as a method by the Christian community to save up resources that would be used for works of charity during Advent and especially during the Christmas season.

Fast and abstinence rules have varied down through the centuries and from place to place. Generally speaking in the Latin West, when a fast is called for the amount of food taken is limited. Only one full meal is allowed during the day. A small amount of food may be taken at the other two meals if needed. Those who were heavy laborers were excused from fasts since their work demanded that they maintain their health and strength. Abstinence, on the other hand, is the complete avoidance of the item in question. The most notable example of a day of abstinence would be the traditional Friday abstinence from meat. Depending upon the season and day in question, a day may be a day of fast, or abstinence, or even both.

In the recent past (say the last 150 years or so), the traditional Advent discipline in the Latin Rite was as follows. As with the rest of the year, all Fridays and Saturdays were days of abstinence from meat. (In the United States Saturday abstinences were dispensed with in 1840 unless that day was also a fasting day) In addition to Friday as a day of abstinence, Fridays in Advent were fasting days as well. The Ember Days, or Quarter Tenses as they were referred to, were days of fast (the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday immediately following the third Sunday in Advent). Lastly, Christmas Eve itself was observed as a fasting day in preparation for celebrating Christ's birth. It should also be noted that in keeping with the somber nature of the season, marriages were not solemnized during the Advent and Christmas seasons, and this is still true today.

Current Canon Law of the Latin Rite no longer requires days of fasting during Advent, but does still require that all those who are over the age of 14 to abstain from meat on Fridays throughout the year. In the US, some other serious act of penance may be performed in place of this abstinence. During Advent we are still called to prepare ourselves for Christ's birth through prayer, penance, fasting and alms giving. So while the old schedule of Advent fasting and abstinence is no longer mandatory, the old discipline is still worth remembering and practicing as a means of preparation. To paraphrase Scripture, what profit is it to have completed one's shopping list if one has lost the sense of the season?

Some articles from the Catholic Encyclopedia related to Advent:

Advent
Christmas
Ember Days
Fast & Abstinence



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