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Origins and development of Advent

29 October, 2009


Vincent Ryan OSB

When the feast of the nativity of the Lord was introduced to Rome in the early years of the fourth century, it was celebrated as a simple memorial and was not preceded by a period of preparation. It was not until about the middle of the sixth century, by which time Christmas had become a major solemnity almost on a par with Easter, that the Roman Advent made its appearance. (1)

It is outside of Rome, especially in Spain and Gaul, that the earliest form of Advent appears. The Council of Saragossa in Spain in 380 refers to a three-week period of preparation extending from 17 December to the feast of the Epiphany. It urges the faithful to be assiduous in going to church daily during this time. The Epiphany, like Easter, was a time for the conferring of baptism, and this suggests that the weeks of preparation were conceived mainly in function of the sacrament of initiation. But for all the faithful this was a time of prayer, ascetic effort and assembly in church. (2)

Towards the end of the fifth century in Gaul, the three-week period of preparation was extended to forty days. Our earliest witness is Bishop Perpetuus of Tours (d. 490) whose regulations on fasting during this period have been preserved. Beginning on the feast of St Martin, 11 November, the period was known as the Lent of St Martin. The name was well chosen for this season since it was strongly penitential in character and lasted forty days. By this time Christmas had replaced Epiphany as the terminus of the time of preparation. (3)

Advent in Rome
The Roman church did not see the need for a prolonged preChristmas fast such as existed in Spain and Gaul. When the season of Advent eventually made its appearance, it was liturgical rather than ascetical in character. From the start it was directly oriented to Christmas, not Epiphany, and took its whole meaning from that feast. It had no connection with baptism.

Advent was indeed a late development in Rome. It is surprising to learn that Pope St Leo the Great (440-61), who in his preaching developed such a rich theology of Christmas, does not seem to have known a time of Advent. Our earliest witnesses to a Roman Advent are the liturgical books, especially the sacramentaries. Of the latter, the Veronese or Leonine Sacramentary (6th century), which is the earliest of these compilations, does not yet have this liturgical season. The Galasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries, however, which represent a more developed liturgy, provide formularies for the Sundays of Advent. (4)

The primitive form of the Roman Advent, represented by the Galasian sacramentary, had six weeks before Christmas. This was the practice of some other churches, and is still a feature of the Milanese rite. It was during the pontificate of Pope St Gregory the Great that the number of weeks was reduced to four, and that has remained the tradition ever since. No doubt this great pontiff had sound pastoral reasons for curtailing the season by two weeks. Liturgically, he may have judged it inappropriate that Advent should have the same duration as Lent. Whatever his motives were, we may have our own reasons today for preferring the earlier tradition. In the pressurised society in which we live, three or four weeks seem all too short a time to assimilate the riches of the Advent liturgy.

The meaning of Advent
In its earliest form Advent was basically a preparation for Christmas. It focused on the liturgical commemoration of Christ’s birth. Within a fairly short time, however, it acquired an eschatological character. From the beginning of the seventh century Advent was understood not only as a time of preparation for the Christmas solemnity but also, and especially, as a time of waiting and expectancy for the return of Christ in glory. (5) In other western churches this eschatological thrust became even more pronounced. It was a characteristic feature of the Gallican Liturgy, and this may have come about or been developed through the influence of Irish missionary monks who, in their preaching, laid such great stress on the coming of the Lord in judgement and on the need to do penance. In the Advent prayers of the Old Spanish or Mozarabic liturgy the eschatological note is preponderant.

The word Advent (Adventus) designated originally not the period of preparation, but the feast of Christmas itself. The coming of Christ in the flesh and the liturgical commemoration of that event was the adventus Domini, the advent of the Lord. And since in the New Testament the word adventus translated the Greek parousia, it was natural that in its Christian usage the term should include in its connotation the second coming of Christ at the end of time. Gradually the word adventus assumed a new, distinctly liturgical meaning: it came to be applied to the weeks of preparation for Christmas. From being a time ante adventum (before the coming) this season became a time in adventu, a season of preparation for Christmas and of expectation of the glorious return of Christ. (6)

Many of us today find it difficult to grapple with the idea of two comings, juxtaposed or superimposed in the Advent liturgy. For the fathers of the church, with their unified vision of the mysteries of Christ, this posed no problem. Pope St Leo the Great, for example, in his sermons for Christmas and Epiphany, leads his hearers and readers beyond the mystery of the incarnation and manifestation to the contemplation of Christ now enthroned in glory and to his return at the end of the ages. (7) We need to recover this comprehensive view of things. As an older commentator has well written: ‘The mystery of Christ’s coming is something indivisible. His appearance on earth and the parousia are two aspects of a single redemptive coming which is not yet completed: he who came will come again, and he has told us to watch and wait.’ (8) The church evokes the coming of Christ in all its aspects, past, present and future. This season recalls the coming on earth of the incarnate Word, deepens our awareness of Christ’s presence in the church today and heightens our hope and longing for his return. It is a kind of ‘anticipation of the feast of Christmas, viewing the mystery of the incarnation in the light of its full and final achievement”.  (9)

Fusion of Roman and Gallican liturgies
As to its essential form and structure the development of the Roman Advent was completed by the eighth century. But it was to be profoundly influenced by the very different spirit of the Gallican Advent which, as already noted, was markedly penitential in character. The liturgy of the Roman Advent retained its message of joyful hope, but some of the ceremonial expressions of joy were suppressed, and the regulations concerning the observance of this season were decidedly Lenten in character. Not that the Roman Advent did not also include a note of penance, but in the positive sense of a call to conversion and renewal of life. That note is sounded in the readings of the Sunday eucharist which summon us to ‘prepare a way for the Lord’, and to ‘cast off the works of darkness’. The Gallican Advent stressed the more negative and restrictive aspects of penance.

This contact of the Roman with the Gallican and Frankish liturgies had its positive side. It was a question of ‘loss and gain’. Certainly there resulted an enrichment in the repertory of chant, hymnody and ritual, even if the latter became over elaborate and dramatic. Among the most splendid additions to the Roman Advent must be included the O Antiphons or Greater Antiphons. They have been in use in our western liturgy since the time of Charlemagne. Amalarius of Metz (780-850) attributed their composition to an anonymous cantor who probably lived in the eighth century. (10)

It is interesting to learn that it was only in the eighth or ninth centuries that the tradition was established of commencing the liturgical year with the first Sunday of Advent. We shall return later to this point. But it is now time to turn our attention to liturgical traditions other than those of the western church. How do Christians of eastern Christianity celebrate Advent?

The eastern tradition
In none of the eastern churches does Advent exist as a distinct liturgical season. The latter is a characteristically western creation and one of which we can be justifiably proud. Nevertheless, in its own manner eastern Christianity, both ascetically and liturgically, prepares for the celebration of the birth of the Lord and his manifestation. Here we consider only one of these liturgies, that of the Byzantine tradition, which is the best known and most widely practised. Since the churches practising this rite follow the teaching of the first seven Ecumenical Councils, they belong to what is known as the Orthodox Church. (11)

Fasting is taken very seriously by Orthodox Christians. They begin their ascetical preparation for Christmas on November 15 with what is known as the Christmas fast or the fast of St Philip. Like the Lenten fast it lasts forty days but is not quite as strict. This is a long established practice in the Greek Orthodox Church, certainly going back to the ninth century. The fast on Christmas Eve is very strict. It should not be inferred from this that the spirit of the Orthodox Advent is merely penitential. It is one of the charisms of Orthodox spirituality to be able to combine fasting with spontaneous joy. This is true of the Lenten and Christmas fasts. The following short text from Matins of December 21 well expresses the joyful mood in which the Byzantine churches prepare for the birth of Christ:

The Creator, the wisdom of God, draws near,
the mist of the prophets’ promise is dispersed.
Joy clears the skies
Truth is resplendent
The dark shadows are dispelled
The gates of Eden are opened
Adam dances in exultation:
Our Creator and God wills to fashion us anew.(12)

The liturgical preparation for Christmas begins on the second Sunday preceding the feast. This is known as the Sunday of the Ancestors of the Lord. This commemorates the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Covenant from Adam to John the Baptist. In common with the Roman Advent the Byzantine pre-Christmas liturgy is prophetic; but the list of those who foretold or prepared the way for the Messiah is more extensive than our own, since it includes Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Samuel, David, and many others. It makes mention of ‘all the ancestors according to the flesh, those before the law and those under the law’.

The Sunday which immediately precedes Christmas is known as the Sunday of the Fathers or of the Genealogy. On this day the church seeks to bring into the joy of the nativity all the just men and women who lived before Christ. Again the list is extensive, running from Adam to St Joseph. It includes some of the great women of the Old Testament: Sarah, Rebecca, Hannah, Miriam, Ruth and others. They belong to that great ‘cloud of witness’ whose faith and constancy we must imitate. The gospel reading for this Sunday is the genealogy of Jesus Christ according to St Matthew. Its purpose is to affirm that Jesus, the Son of God, has come in the flesh as a real human being and truly one of our race.

From December 20 begins the immediate preparation for the festival. These five days are known as the forefeast. They are not only a preparation for, but already a foretaste of, the mystery of Christmas day. The liturgy focuses strongly and clearly on the reality of the Incarnation and birth of the Lord as defined and taught by the great councils of the church, in particular that of Chalcedon.

The services for Christmas Eve are even longer than those of the feast itself. The church sets before the faithful the whole panorama of the nativity and plumbs the depths of its mystery. This allows for a more relaxed and prayerful assimilation of the fruits of the feast on Christmas day itself. As a monk of the eastern church observes: ‘December 24th speaks to us of the same things as December 25th, but the 24th is a preparation, an instruction, a praise which welcomes the event; the 25th is the fullness, the fruition, the praise which crowns the accomplished fact.’ (13)

Unlike the western Advent, so markedly eschatological in character, the idea of Christ’s second coming is not a pronounced feature of the orthodox liturgy of preparation. At most one could say that the notion is implicit in the songs, hymns and readings of this time. Expectation of the parousia comes to the fore at other times of the year, notably during the first three days of Holy Week. (14)

Orthodox Christians are just as aware as we of the western tradition of the intimate connection between the first and final coming of Christ. A visual expression of this is provided by the artistic setting of the liturgy. Before the altar on either side of the ‘royal gates’, are set corresponding icons, one depicting Mary and her child, the other representing the Lord Jesus in glory. In the minds of the faithful participating in the liturgy, these two comings are held together at all times and cannot be separated. (15)

Popular piety during Advent
Returning to the western church we now consider some expressions of popular devotion during the season of Advent. My source of information here is a study of the folklore of Advent and Christmas by the American Jesuit. Fr X Weiser. (16) As a general observation it is worth stating from the start that these pious customs are in harmony with the liturgy and reinforce its message. Also it is noteworthy that they exhibit a spirit that is joyful rather than ascetic and penitential.

No doubt the best loved symbol of advent, and the one we are most familiar with, is the Advent wreath. Around this symbol, in church and home, there has evolved an expressive prayer ritual or liturgy of the home. Its origins go back to pre-Christian times, to the sun-worshipping tribes of northern Europe. It was one of the many symbols of light which were used at the end of November and early December, that time of year when our pagan ancestors celebrated the month of Yule by lighting torches and fires. To appease the sun-god and to ensure his return in the darkest time of the year, they took what may have been a cartwheel, wound with greens and decorated with lights, and offered it to the deity.

This pagan custom survived into Christian times. Medieval people kept many of these fire and light symbols as popular traditions with pagan or superstitious overtones. It was in the sixteenth century in eastern Germany that the custom was Christianised, so to speak, and the Advent wreath made its appearance in people’s homes as a religious symbol of Advent. The custom spread rapidly throughout the whole of Germany, and became popular with Catholics and Lutherans alike. It spread to other countries in Europe. Its adoption in English speaking countries is witnessed to only in recent times, but now it is firmly established and very popular in Britain, Ireland and North America.

In the ritual of lighting an extra candle each week on the Advent wreath, we give expression to the hope and longing of the people of the Old Covenant for a redeemer, and the gradual realisation of God’s promises through the prophets and finally John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. The wreath itself, symbol of victory and glory, symbolises the fullness of time, the birth of Christ and the glory of his coming. (17)

A custom we may not be familiar with in these islands is the Christmas Novena. In countries of South America the nine days preceding Christmas are devoted to a popular novena in honour of the Holy Child (La Novena del Nina). There is first the setting up of the crib in the decorated church. All the figures are there except the Child Jesus who will be brought in on Christmas Day. Each day there takes place an office of the novena consisting of popular prayers and chants in which great numbers of people, including the children, take part.

Pre-Christmas novenas are not unknown in Europe. In some central European countries there has existed into our own times the beautiful devotion of the Golden Nights. It was given this name because it took place during the hours of darkness, either after nightfall or before dawn. In Alpine regions it was the custom to have a picture or statue of the Blessed Virgin carried from house to house on each successive day of the novena. At the close of the day the family and neighbours gathered round this representation of Mary and said prayers and sang hymns in her honour. Then the young people would carry it in procession to the next homestead where it was received with due honour and again venerated by its new hosts. And so it continued each day until Christmas. It was also the custom in many parts of Europe for rural Catholics to attend a pre-dawn Mass on the mornings of the Golden Nights. The liturgy was that of the votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin during Advent.

In these devotions there is evidently a strong awareness of the presence of Mary in the Advent season. This accords with the church’s liturgy, especially in the time of immediate preparation for Christmas. Irish people expressed their devotion to Mary by a more frequent recitation of the rosary (Coróin Mhuire, Mary’s crown) during Advent. The more devout among them recite, in addition to the family rosary, extra rosaries of their own. The ideal- and I am unaware of the special significance of this was to attain a total of four thousand Hail Mary’s before Christmas!

Fr Weiser’s appreciation of these various folk-customs does not extend to present-day practices which, by anticipating the festive season, deprive the feast itself of its true significance and joyful radiance. Advent has become an extended shopping spree and we soon become weary of a surfeit of Christmas carols, some of them sentimental and secular. Let there be joyful anticipation certainly, but let us not pre-empt the Christmas celebration by untimely festivity. Even the best of our carols should not be sung too early in the season. After all, observes our author, we do not sing our Easter alleluias on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday!

Advent since Vatican II
The renewal of the liturgy effected by the second Vatican Council did not fundamentally alter the season of Advent. Its structure remained unaltered, it’s traditional features were respected. Liturgical directives emanating from Rome sought to clarify further the nature and purpose of this season and to determine more precisely its spirit. In what pertains to the four weeks of Advent, the liturgical renewal has brought about a tremendous enrichment of the texts of the lectionary, missal and breviary.

As for the spirit of Advent, we are now left in no doubt that this is a season of joyful hope, not a time of penance. Previously there was some ambiguity about this, and there was a tendency to impose a penitential discipline on this season, thus assimilating it to Lent. Now the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar declare Advent to be a ‘season of joyful’ and spiritual expectation’ (no.39), and in the accompanying commentary it is stated explicitly that this ‘is no longer to be considered a penitential season.’ Some vestiges of the older observance do remain, such as the suppression of the Gloria at Sunday Mass and the wearing of purple vestments. Both these practices were transmitted from Gaul to Rome in the twelfth century. The commentary explains that the Gloria is dropped ‘in order to allow it to ring out with certain freshness at Christmas’, and, likewise, the sobriety of colour will make the white vestments appear all the more brilliant on Christmas day.

The season of Advent has been given a more clear-cut structure. Its essential unity has been maintained, while its twofold character has been made more clearly discernible. Clarifying articles 39 to 42 of the Calendar, which treat of Advent, the commentary adds: ‘The liturgical texts of Advent display a unity demonstrated by the almost daily reading of the prophet Isaiah. Nevertheless, two parts of Advent can be clearly distinguished, each with its own significance, as the new prefaces clearly illustrate. From the first Sunday of Advent until December 16 the liturgy expresses the eschatological character of Advent and urges us to look for the second coming of Christ. From December 17-24, the daily propers of the Mass and Office prepare more directly for the celebration of Christmas.’

From a consideration of the form of the Advent liturgy, we move to a brief examination of its content. We take in turn the lectionary, the missal and the breviary. As for the first, it constitutes a veritable mine of biblical spirituality. Its richness can be the better appreciated by comparing it with what went before. In the lectionary of the missal of Pius V, there were only nineteen readings provided for Advent. In the lectionary promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1969, there are no fewer than seventy-five pericopes for the pre-Christmas season. If one takes into account the three-year cycle of readings, it means that we now have twelve liturgical celebrations for the four Sundays of Advent. These celebrations have an organic unity and are complementary to one another. From Sunday to Sunday there is a progression of thought and theme: the first two Sundays announce the coming of the Lord in judgement, the third expresses the joy of a coming already very near, the fourth and last ‘appears as a Sunday of the fathers of the Old Testament and the Blessed Virgin Mary, in anticipation of the birth of Christ’. (18) As for the weekday readings, they are adapted to the theology expressed in the Sunday celebration which preceded them. (19)

Fr Gaston Fontaine, one of the compilers of our present lectionary, has given an account of the immense research which lay behind the selection of readings for Advent. (20) An exhaustive study of all the lectionaries of the western church covering a period of 1500 years was undertaken, and from this collection a choice of all that was best and most traditional was made. Some of these readings are traditionally Roman and would have been familiar to the faithful of Rome in the time of Pope St Gregory the Great, and even before his time. Others are drawn from the traditions of the Old Spanish, Gallican and other western churches. The result is a treasury of incomparable riches which enables the church of our day to celebrate the adventus domini in all its phases, past, present and future.

The missal too, in its euchology for Advent, has been greatly enriched. Where formerly there were proper prayers only for the Sundays and December Ember Days, now we have a proper collect for each day of Advent. In addition there is a wider selection of super oblata and post-communion prayers, two fine prefaces where none existed before, and a solemn blessing for this season. The twenty nine collects also appear in the breviary as the prayers of the day. What is of special interest in this series is that it includes a number of splendid prayers from a source hitherto unknown to the Roman liturgy, the so-called Rotulus of Ravenna. These prayers date from the sixth century or even earlier, and combine theological depth with an elevated literary style. While the Roman collects (mainly from the Galasian Sacramentary) are directed to the second coming of Christ, these are focused more directly on the coming of Christ in the flesh and express the humble attitude of faith before the mystery of the Incarnation. (21)

The liturgy of the hours has likewise been renewed. Happily, nothing of real value in the old breviary has been discarded. The familiar antiphons and responsories, which give such a joyful and lyrical note to this season, have been retained. They now nurture the prayer life of the growing numbers who pray The Divine Office or Daily Prayer. The great O Antiphons, popularised through their use in paraliturgies and acclamations in the Mass, herald the approach of Christmas for the people of God as a whole.

It is in the office of readings that the greatest gains have been made. The scripture pericopes provide a daily semi-continuous reading from Isaiah. The patristic and other ecclesiastical readings complement this. They constitute an anthology of spiritual texts ranging in time from St Iranaeus to St John of the Cross and St Charles Borromeo. And since Advent is a time of hope and joy, the inclusion of extracts from the constitution Gaudium et Spes, which articulates the aspirations of all men and women, is a welcome addition.

These various authors urge us to prepare for the coming of Christ by the exercise of faith, hope and an ardent desire for, and love of, God. They ponder the mystery of the two comings, and, with Bernard and Borromeo, speak of a third, intermediate coming, which is the spiritual advent of Christ to each individual soul. Their vision extends beyond Advent to the mystery of Christmas itself. The great themes of the Christmas-Epiphany liturgy are already intimated in the patristic readings of Advent: the saving incarnation, the renewal of the image of God in man, the ‘wonderful exchange’, the mystery of divine love which must be reciprocated. These thoughts we will savour and ponder at greater depth during the Christmas season. Summing up the message of these breviary readings, the late Fr Henry Ashworth writes: ‘During Advent the Christian prepares himself to receive the grace of salvation which will be given to him in celebrating the historical event of the mystery. But the Incarnation is the beginning of a process which is not yet finished. Christ will return in glory to crown his work of salvation.’ (22)

In conclusion to this essay, I raise what may appear to be a technical point. Does the first Sunday of Advent really mark the beginning of the liturgical year? As we have seen, this has been the tradition in the Roman Church from about the ninth century and perhaps a little before that. A passage in the Liturgy Constitution of Vatican II seemed to imply that Advent was to be viewed as the conclusion rather than the beginning of the church year. Article 102 reads: ‘Within the cycle of the year she (the church) unfolds the whole mystery of Christ from the incarnation and nativity to the ascension, Pentecost and the expectation of the blessed hope of the coming of the Lord.’ In spite of this statement, the Roman Calendar and the revised liturgical books have maintained the centuries old tradition. One has to begin somewhere, and the first Sunday of Advent provides a convenient beginning to the church year. From a liturgical point of view, however, one could argue that the ecclesiastical year begins with the Easter season rather than with the Christmas cycle. Whatever view one favours, it is important to remember that the church year is eschatological rather than chronological, that we are dealing with liturgical time and not enacting a mystery play. Advent prepares us for the final coming of the Lord. Its symbol, as Fr Pierre Journel suggests, is the empty throne depicted in the mosaics of Rome and Ravenna, waiting for the return of Christ to take possession of his kingdom.



1. For the history of the Roman Advent I have followed J Hild, ‘L’Avent’ in La Maison-Dieu 59 (1959), pp. 10-24. Also consulted: P Jounel, ‘L’ Avent’ in L’Eglise en Priere, edited by A G Martimort, Tournai, 1965, pp. 753-57; W O’Shea, ‘Advent’ in New Catholic Encyclopaedia, and A Adam, The Liturgical Year (New York, 1981), pp. 130-38
2. Hild, work cited, pp. 13-14
3. Hild, work cited, p.15
4. For a description of the sacramentaries, see Martimort, L’Eglise en Priere, pp. 287-96
5. Hild, work cited, pp. 18-19. In the official commentary to the Revised Liturgical Calendar it is stated: ‘It (Advent) was instituted to prepare the people for the celebration of Christmas, and shortly afterwards acquired an eschatological character.’
6. Hild, pp. 17-19. See also ‘Day of the Lord’ in Dictionary of Biblical Theology.
7. See J Gaillard, ‘Noel, memoria ou Mystere’ in La Maison-Dieu 59 (1959), pp 37-59. I treat of this in Advent to Epiphany (Dublin, 1983), pp 10-12
8. F Nogues, ‘Advent et avenement d’apres les anciens Sacramentaires’ in Questions Liturgiques et Paroissiales 5 (1937), P 240
9. W O’Shea in his study ‘Advent’ in New Catholic Encylopedia
10. Cited by M Huglo, ‘O Antiphons’ in New Catholic Encylopedia.
11. For this section I have relied mainly on J Dalmais, ‘Le Temps de preparation a Noel dans les liturgies Syrienne Et Byzantine” in LMD 59 (1959), pp 25-36. Also consulted: The Year of Grace of the Lord by a Monk of the Eastern Church (London, 1980), pp 45-65; T Hopko, The Winter Pascha (New York, 1984), pp 9-93. Texts of the Forefeast in The Festal Menaion (London, 1969), translated by Mother Mary and K Ware, pp 199-251
12. Quoted by T Hoplo, The Winter Pascha, p 83
13. The Year of Grace of the Lord, pp 59-60
14. Hoplo, work cited, p 90
15. Hoplo, work cited, p 91
16. ‘Le Folklore de l’ Avent et de Noel’ in La Maison-Dieu 59 (1959), pp
17. I treat of this in Advent to Epiphany, pp 19-21
18. From the Commentary on the Roman Calendar, section 2, ‘The Advent
19. For biblico-liturgical reflections on these readings, and also useful
historical background, see A Nocent, The Liturgical Year (Minnesota, Liturgical Press, 1977), Vol. 1, pp 95-161 and 167-77
20. ‘L’Avent dans les Lectionnaires Latin’ in Notitiae 173 (1980), pp 605-15. See also his earlier studies, ‘Le lectionnaire au temps de l’Avent’,
Notitiae 66 (1971), pp 304-17, and 67 (1971), pp 364-76
21. For a study of these Advent prayers and an account of the work involved in translating them for The Divine Office, see the article of my confrere Fr Placid Murray, ‘The Glenstal-Headingley Collects’ in Life and Worship (July 1973), pp 10-15
22. ‘Themes of the Patristic Liturgy for Advent, Christmas, Epiphany”
In Hallel (Advent 1975), pp 235-66. This is a translation of the article which was published originally in Italian in Rivista-Liturgica 5 (1972), pp 677-705

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