January 27, 2021

What Is Advent?

advent-candles-francesa-millerWe are now in the third week of the liturgical season of Advent.  Okay, what does all that mean?  What is Advent?  To quote from my 1964 Mass missal (from the days when Mass was still said in Latin):

The ecclesiastical year begins on the First Sunday of Advent.  The season of Advent is a season of penance and prayer in preparation for the coming of the Son of God in the flesh, and also for His second Coming to judge mankind.  The Masses for Advent strike a note of preparation and repentance mingled with joy and hope; hence, while the penitential purple is worn and the Gloria is omitted, the joyous Alleluia is retained.

There are four Sundays in Advent, marking the four weeks leading up to the feast and season of Christmas.  The Christmas cycle marks “the Mystery of the Incarnation”, as the Easter cycle celebrates “the mystery of the Redemption.”  Lent and Advent are both periods of preparation leading up to the great feasts of the year, and they share a common character of being penitential and expectant.  I think we can see the penitential nature of Lent more easily than we do that of Advent, because Advent ends in Christmas which is joy and celebration.  Lent leads us into Holy Week, the Passion and Death of Christ.  In the same way, we overlook the expectancy that marks Lent since it’s not as easy to ‘look forward’ to a death as it is to a birth.  The purple (or violet, as it is also referred to) of the two seasons is a paradoxical colour, since purple is traditionally the colour of majesty, an imperial colour, but it is also used to denote sorrow, repentance, humiliation (or perhaps better, humility).  We see this double nature in the account of the Passion where Jesus was clad in a purple robe during the mockery by the soldiers and servants (or a scarlet robe, depending on whether it’s the account in Matthew or Mark: the association remains, however, as both scarlet and purple were colours associated with rank and dignity).

But Advent doesn’t end with Christmas; as mentioned in the excerpt above, we also anticipate the Second Coming of Christ when, as we say in the Nicene Creed, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end.”  Lent and Advent both encompass christological, eschatological and soteriological themes.  And now I’ve hauled out the Big Words and made you all think I know something about theology, I will talk a little regarding my thoughts about Advent.

First, when I consider the word itself, the name of the season, “Advent”, it brings to mind these phrases:

  1. Adveniat regnum tuum.  You’ll know this from the “Our Father”, meaning “Thy kingdom come”. 
  2. Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.  Catholics are familiar with this from the Sanctus prayer during the Liturgy of the Eucharist; it comes from the Gospel of Matthew describing the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and means “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”. 
  3. As we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.  That’s the version most of us grew up with when going to Mass; in the new translation it’s been reformulated as “As we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ”.  It’s from the shor t prayer said after the recitation of the “Our Father” in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Those are the three themes of Advent: the eschatological, soteriological and christological.  We recall the anticipation and the longing of our forebears of the Old Testament for the coming of the Messiah; we lead up to our commemoration of the First Coming of Christ in His Incarnation as the child of Bethlehem; we wait in our turn for the Second Coming and the establishment of the Kingdom.  The Messiah and His Kingdom were not the way they were anticipated by the people of Israel; instead of a prophet or king, God Himself became Man and saved us not by force of arms but by surrender and death, and the Kingdom He came to establish is both “now and not yet”.  It will also probably do us no harm to remind ourselves that, just as the Jews did not get the king of David’s line who would drive out the Romans and re-establish Israel as a worldly power that they were expecting, so the form of the Kingdom to come (despite “Left Behind” style theology) will probably be very different to our imaginings of it.

I am informed by the online “Catholic Encylopedia” that the name of the season, Advent, derives from the Latin “ad-venio, to come to”.  Wikipedia helpfully chimes in that “Latin adventus is the translation of the Greek word parousia” (meaning “arrival”, “coming”, or “presence”) which is mainly used in theology to refer to the Second Coming of Christ.

However, it also has a particular meaning in Classical usage, which is:

Physical presence, arrival – The main use is the physical presence of a person, which where that person is not already present refers to the prospect of the physical arrival of that person, especially the visit of a royal or official personage and sometimes as an extension of this usage, a formal “occasion”.

That ties in neatly with the Third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday .  This comes from the ‘Introit’ (or ‘Entrance Antiphon’, the short text at the start when the priest enters) for this Mass, which comes from Philippians 4: 4-6 “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.  Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.  The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  The Latin for that begins “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete”.  The vestments for this Sunday are not purple/violet, but rose (this does not mean pink, but unfortunately that does appear to be the case where rose-coloured vestments are indeed worn nowadays).  This is why the third candle in the Advent wreath, if your church has one, is pink.

It is also the Sunday that celebrates John the Baptist, since the Gospel reading was taken, in pre-Vatican II times, from John 1: 19-28 (this year, in the Revised Lectionary, we are starting back with Year A so it is from Matthew 11: 2-11).

How the sense of parousia as “prospect of physical arrival, especially the visit of a royal or official person” ties in with John the Baptist is through the Gospel reading where he says:

“He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

And in Matthew 3:1-6 “ In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea,

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

There’s a joke along the lines of Queen Elizabeth II must think the world smells like fresh paint, because everywhere she goes, they’ll have spent weeks beforehand sprucing it up.  Well, here John the Baptist is the person ensuring that “Fill in all the potholes!  Put down some new bedding plants!  Make sure everywhere has a fresh coat of paint!  The King ‘s arrival is at hand!”

John speaks for us: we are all awaiting the fulfillment of the promise, the arrival of the Messiah.  John 1: 29-31:

“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!  This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’  I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”

But John also warns of the fruits of the advent of the Messiah, which are not what we expect as we move forward towards Christmas and its promise of peace and reconciliation: Matthew 3:11-12:

““I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

These are the three questions that are asked as we go through the periods of Advent and Lent, the three soteriological, christological and eschatological elements twining together through the seasons of Christmas and Easter:

i.         How are we to be saved?

ii.         By whom are we to be saved?

iii.         What is the purpose of salvation?

Advent is the season of expectation.  In what other context do we speak of “expecting”?  That of pregnancy.  As we go through Advent to the feast of the Incarnation, we also move with Mary through the time of her pregnancy to the birth of Christ.  And not we alone, but the whole of creation, as St. Paul unfolds for us in Romans 8: 22-23:

“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies”.

We are called to be, as Mary was, “Christ-bearers”.  From a sermon of St. Augustine, used in the Office of Readings for the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary :

Indeed the blessed Mary certainly did the Father’s will, and so it was for her a greater thing to have been Christ’s disciple than to have been his mother, and she was more blessed in her discipleship than in her motherhood.

…Now, beloved, give me your whole attention, for you also are members of Christ; you also are the body of Christ.  Consider how you yourselves can be among those of whom the Lord said: Here are my mother and my brothers.  Do you wonder how you can be the mother of Christ?  He himself said: Whoever hears and fulfils the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and my sister and my mother.

…Tell me how Mary became the mother of Christ, if it was not by giving birth to the members of Christ?  You, to whom I am speaking, are the members of Christ.  Of whom were you born? “Of Mother Church,” I hear the reply of your hearts.  You became sons of this mother at your baptism, you came to birth then as members of Christ.  Now you in your turn must draw to the font of baptism as many as you possibly can.  You became sons when you were born there yourselves, and now by bringing others to birth in the same way, you have it in your power to become the mothers of Christ.

I want to step back for a moment and look at feasts that come in the Church calendar during December, during the period of Advent.  In particular, I want to look at the feasts of St. Nicholas of Myra (6th December), the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (8th December) and St. Lucy (13th December).  St. Lucy’s day is a much more minor feast nowadays than it used to be, but the symbolism is important for my purposes.

We all know St. Nicholas as the original of “Santa Claus” but beyond and before his reputation as a gift-bringer and gift-giver, he was (and is) revered as a patron of sailors which is why many maritime cities have a devotion to him (for instance, he is the patron saint of Galway city in Ireland, which was the principal trading port with Spain and France in the Middle Ages). Most importantly, in regard to the christological theme of Advent, he attended the First Council of Nicaea, famously opposed Arius (allegedly, he slapped him in the face during a particularly heated debate) and was one of the signatories to the Nicene Creed.

The Arian controversy (and it’s unclear whether Arius himself held all the views attributed to him, or whether some of his followers went further than he did) was about the nature of Christ and the Incarnation.  Was Christ indeed “begotten” or was He “born”?  This may seem like a quibble over terminology, but the nature of what we as Christians believe was being decided there.  Was Jesus indeed True God and True Man, the only-begotten Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, God made Man, or was He the most perfect of all created beings, adopted and raised up to sonship, but ultimately a creature, not the Creator?

Arianism was very popular at the time; it seemed to solve a lot of tricky questions which, after all, didn’t mean much to anyone but theologians.  We can see the temptation towards it still remaining in our own day.  It cut the knot of the Trinity, a dogma that is very difficult to understand and imperfectly held even by those loyal to it.  It left God as supreme, it made the claims of the Christians to be successors in faith to the Jews clearer (after all, dumping that questionable doctrine of begetting a son on a mortal woman  was less outrageous to Jewish monotheism and less reminiscent of those pagan stories where Zeus was always doing that exact thing), and it simplified what ordinary people had to believe immensely.

Jesus could still be unique.  He could still be the Saviour.  It was a compromise that appealed to a lot of people, so why didn’t Nicaea fall into line?  But the Council didn’t, and so we say today:

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,

the Only Begotten Son of God,

born of the Father before all ages.

God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;

through him all things were made.

For us men and for our salvation

he came down from heaven,

and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,

and became man.

This covers the second point I mentioned: “By whom are we to be saved?”  By God taking flesh in the womb of the Virgin and becoming man for our sake.

Moving on to the next feast, the Immaculate Conception.  And before I take a look at it, I want to clear up one thing.   I can’t count how many times I’ve seen (and you’ve seen, and heard, and read) confusion between the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth, even by those who should know better, e.g. Catholics.  It does not mean “conceived without having sex in the normal human manner”.  Mary is the Immaculate Conception (so is Jesus, but that isn’t the question here).  She is not the Virgin Birth.

What it means is that, from the first moment of her conception by her mother and father, she was free from Original Sin.

It’s simple and complicated at the same time.  How was this possible?  Does this mean that she didn’t need Christ?  Does this mean she is not one of those saved by Christ?

Working backwards: No, it does not mean she is not saved by Christ.  In fact, it is held as the first fruits of salvation by and through Christ that this was done.  Yes, she did need Christ the same way as all of fallen humanity needed the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Christ to save them.  It was possible in the same way that it was possible for God to create the unspotted souls of Adam and Eve before their Fall, and because what happens in eternity is outside of and beyond what happens in time.

If the feast of Nicholas is the christological question of the God-Man in Advent, then the feast of the Immaculate Conception is the soteriological question of Advent, because it is intimately tied up with our redemption.  If the once-for-all death of Christ on the cross is efficacious for our salvation even though we were not born at the time, and is efficacious for those yet unborn who come to Him, then that efficacy is also applicable ‘backwards’ in time (though it is not in time, but in eternity, that we are really speaking of).

If the patriarchs and prophets who died awaiting the Messiah could be saved by their faith in the One who was to come, then Mary’s faith could also and did also save her.  If God is sovereign and before the foundations of the world can decree those whom He wills to save, then likewise He could choose and decree her sinlessness.

More than that I will not venture to speculate, as I fear to tread upon holy ground.

As Christ is the New Adam, so Mary is the New Eve who by her “yes” and her submission to the will of God in obedience, trust and faith counters the disobedience, lack of trust and faithlessness of our First Mother.  There is an Irish poem dating from around the 11th century (if not older), as translated by Kuno Meyer in the early 20th century:

I am Eve, great Adam’s wife,
‘Tis I that outraged Jesus of old;
‘Tis I that robbed my children of Heaven,
By rights ’tis I that should have gone upon the cross.

I had a kingly house to please me,
Grievous the evil choice that disgraced me,
Grievous the wicked advice that withered me!
Alas! my hand is not pure.

‘Tis I that plucked the apple,
Which went across my gullet:
So long as they endure in the light of day,
So long women will not cease from folly.

There would be no ice in any place,
There would be no glistening windy winter,
There would be no hell, there would be no sorrow,
There would be no fear, if it were not for me.

One of the allegorical titles of Mary, as in the prayer the Litany of Loreto, is “Ark of the Covenant”, since she was overshadowed by the power of the Holy Spirit and carried within her the Word made flesh.  The feast of the Immaculate Conception ties in to the first question “How are we to be saved?”  And the answer is the same for Mary as it is for all of us: by the saving merits of Christ’s death on the cross.

Finally I come to the feast of St. Lucy on 13th December; probably best known and celebrated nowadays (outside of Italy) by the Scandinavian countries but formerly she was a popular saint throughout mediaeval Europe.  Her name is associated with light, and the legends attributed to her martyrdom declares she had her eyes torn out (or in other accounts, she plucked them out herself to discourage a flattering and importunate suitor), so she is the patron saint of sight amongst other things.

What we know is that Lucy was she was a martyr in Syracuse during Diocletian’s persecution in the 4th century; that devotion to her spread to Rome and, by the 6th century, was observed throughout the whole Church.

And here comes my obligatory Dante reference!  He was devoted to her, whether because of (as folklore has it) he had eye troubles, or because she is a patron saint of writers.  He mentions her three times, once each in the “Inferno”, “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso” sections of the “Divine Comedy”:

Inferno, Canto II

97 [Mary] summoned Lucy and made this request:

98 “Your faithful one is now in need of you

99 and I commend him to your care.”

Purgatorio, Canto IX

52 A short time ago, in the early light of dawn,

53 when your soul was asleep within you,

54 on the flowers that adorn the place below

55 there came a lady who said: “I am Lucy.

56 Let me gather up this sleeping man

57 so I may speed him on his way.”

61 Here she set you down, but first her lovely eyes

62 showed me that entrance, standing open.

63 Then she and sleep, as one, departed.

Paradiso, Canto XXXII

136 And opposite the greatest father of a family [Adam]

137 sits Lucy, who urged on your lady when,

138 with lowered gaze, you headed down your path to ruin.

Here we see St. Lucy, the saint associated with light and with vision, acting in her role as “Christ-bearer” to save, enlighten and guide a soul to its ultimate destination.  Lucy ‘s feast also echoes the soteriological and eschatological elements of Advent, the question “What is the purpose of salvation?

In her hagiography, it is represented that “Then Lucy said, “Listen to my counsel; you can take nothing with you from this life, and whatever you give away at death for the Lord’s sake you give because you cannot take it with you.  Give now to the true Saviour, while you are healthy, whatever you intended to give away at your death.”

Thus Lucy frequently exhorted her mother until she sold her shining gems and even her land for ready money, and distributed it to the poor and to strangers, to widows and exiles, and to the wise servants of God.”

Here is the Kingdom of Heaven, “now and not yet”, where we do not lay up treasure for ourselves below, nor spend alms as a bribe towards our death, but give to the members of the Body of Christ.

And finally, having spoken of spiritual mothers and spiritual children, I finish with speaking of the Church as Spouse and Bride of Christ, as Holy Mother Church.  We don’t travel the road of Advent in isolation and we can’t reach the stable at Bethlehem, or enter into the Kingdom thereafter, as single, solitary, individual believers.  We are all members of the Body, whether we find that pleasing or not.  And we get guidance from our Mother, as well as our Father.  As Pope Francis puts it in his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium [The Joy of the Gospel]”, he visualises the Church as “a mother with an open heart”:

A mother’s conversation

139. We said that the people of God, by the constant inner working of the Holy Spirit, is constantly evangelizing itself.  What are the implications of this principle for preachers?  It reminds us that the Church is a mother, and that she preaches in the same way that a mother speaks to her child, knowing that the child trusts that what she is teaching is for his or her benefit, for children know that they are loved.  Moreover, a good mother can recognize everything that God is bringing about in her children, she listens to their concerns and learns from them.  The spirit of love which reigns in a family guides both mother and child in their conversations; therein they teach and learn, experience correction and grow in appreciation of what is good.

…140. This setting, both maternal and ecclesial, in which the dialogue between the Lord and his people takes place, should be encouraged by the closeness of the preacher, the warmth of his tone of voice, the unpretentiousness of his manner of speaking, the joy of his gestures.  Even if the homily at times may be somewhat tedious, if this maternal and ecclesial spirit is present, it will always bear fruit, just as the tedious counsels of a mother bear fruit, in due time, in the hearts of her children.

And ending with a final feast day in Advent, Christmas Eve, which is also the commemoration of Ss. Adam and Eve – our First Parents, which brings us back to where we started and the necessity for Advent and Lent, Christmas and Easter, in the first place.  From T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”, No.4 Little Gidding, Section V:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.


  1. Steve Newell says

    For many American Christians, if you ask how they are preparing for Christmas, they could easy talk about shopping, decorating their homes, etc. But how many would say that they are preparing through reading Advent devotions, Wednesday Advent services at their church, etc?

    As one who grew up SBC, there was not concept of Advent, much less a Church Year. I have come to appreciate Advent, along with the Church Year since it provides structure and context. Also, it ties me back to the historic church.

    • We must be twin brothers of different mothers, Steve. Using the Church Year allows us to follow the ebb and flow of the life of Christ…It “transforms our minds”, changes the way that we think about our lives and how we live them. I had similar experience in the SBC, which has a disdain for anything remotely “Catholic” in appearance. Although, they do love to do “40 days of purpose” fasts around about Lent. And you’re correct, the Calendar does help us connect with the Communion of Saints.

      Good points from Steve, great post by Miss Martha. Should we have expected anything less?

    • An awful lot of Lutherans, Episcopalians – and folks from other denims – follow the church calendar and most definitely observe Advent.

      I grew up Lutheran, so the idea of *not* following through on Advent is alien to me, even though I realize that many “low church” Protestants don’t hold to the church calendar.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      As one who grew up SBC, there was not concept of Advent, much less a Church Year. I have come to appreciate Advent, along with the Church Year since it provides structure and context.

      Advent also makes a lot more sense than today’s XMAS(!). Four whole weeks to rest up and prepare for a twelve-day party. Contrasted with over a month of Black Fridays and shopping burnouts leading (when you’re already burned out) to ONE DAY of family feud blowups and pigging out, followed by reporting for work at the usual time the next morning.

  2. Err, denominations. Blasted autocorrect!

  3. David Cornwell says

    This is deeply rich in all the meanings it conveys. Liturgical theology, scripture, salvation, tradition, and history. It’s all here. So the Story comes alive in all its meanings.

    Regarding St Nicholas: “Most importantly, in regard to the christological theme of Advent, he attended the First Council of Nicaea, famously opposed Arius (allegedly, he slapped him in the face during a particularly heated debate) and was one of the signatories to the Nicene Creed.”

    A movie should be made about this. I was thinking the other day that if Christian film producers want to make good movies, go back to the stories of the early councils of the Church. For there all the drama one can imagine exists. Arguments, prayer, the presence of the Holy Spirit. For in these councils doctrine was settled, the canon selected, and worship conducted. And someone gets slapped. And it might teach us something about how to proceed in our present dilemma . But it won’t happen, because it probably wouldn’t sell in a capitalist world.

    • More than slaps were involved in various councils – riots, hired “muscle,” the lot.

      Seeing just how human (and, often, political/factional) the councils were is quite sobering.

      • And how deeply ironic is it that the First Nicene Council was convened by Emperor Constantine, and by his initiative?

        • David Cornwell says

          So, Robert, which world ruler would you pick to convene a new Council of the Church? I suppose one would need to see a vision of some sort first.

          • Until recently, I might have said Nelson Mandela, though I’m not aware of his ever having claimed to have had a vision, nor do I have any reason to believe that he thought of himself as a Christian. Mandela seems to have been a living embodiment of the aspiration of Camus’ character Jean Tarrou, in the Plague, to be a secular saint.

            I also harbor a vain wish that Constantine had been more like the Indian Emperor Ashoka, who earnestly tried to implement the teachings of Buddhism during his reign.

          • If you look at Constantine’s bio (absent the hagiographic-style screeds that were written about him by people in his employ), his supposed conversion becomes and open question.

            He’s also responsible for a fusion of church and state that led to some bad, bad things. So, certainly (imo) an anti-hero rather than a champion of anything other than his own power.

      • Including one death as a result of a beating! Its history…

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    It will also probably do us no harm to remind ourselves that, just as the Jews did not get the king of David’s line who would drive out the Romans and re-establish Israel as a worldly power that they were expecting, so the form of the Kingdom to come (despite “Left Behind” style theology) will probably be very different to our imaginings of it.

    Somebody tell that to the “TurboJesus” of Left Behind et al.

  5. Martha, I want to come to Ireland and be your student.

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