The Holy Catholic Church annually celebrates the first liturgical season in the Church calendar — the season of Advent — beginning from the Sunday nearest to the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle (30 November) and embracing four Sundays that could fall as early as November 27 or as late as December 3, that is encompassing the span of time from the fourth Sunday before Christmas until the Nativity of Our Lord is celebrated. But, the common question being asked is: What is Advent and how did it become part of Christian life?
The term Advent was from the Latin word “Adventus,” which means “coming.” It is a season of preparation for Christmas, the celebration of the first coming of the Word of God into flesh; and for Parousia, the Lord’s second coming as Judge of the living and the dead. The Church teaches that “When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for His second coming” (CCC 524).
The preparation for the celebration of the birth of the Savior is done in the earliest years of Christianity by works of penance as mentioned in the two sermons of St. Maximus, bishop of Turin (d. AD 423), not to speak of several others which were formerly attributed to St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan (AD 340-397), and St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo (AD 354-430), but which were probably written by St. Cesarius, bishop of Arles (AD 468-542). In the AD 846 capitularia of Charles the Bald, king of the Franks, the bishops admonished him not to call them away from their dioceses during Lent or Advent, under pretext of affairs of the State or the necessities of war, for they have sacred duties to fulfill, i.e. preaching during those holy seasons. In the second book of the History of the Franks, St. Gregory, bishop of Tours (AD 538-594), wrote that his predecessor bishop, St. Perpetuus of Tours (d. AD 490), had decreed a fast three times a week, from the feast of St. Martin until Christmas.
Furthermore, the council of Tours (AD 563) promulgated a concrete guidelines in the observance of Advent before Christmas, as it reads: “they should observe fasting everyday during the month of December, up to Christmas day” (canon 17). The council of Mâcon (AD 581) also advised the clerics as well as the laity to “fast for three days each week: on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, from the feast day of Saint Martin until Christmas day … and that they celebrate on those days the Liturgy of the Hours as in Lent” (canon 9). The sixth book of the capitularia of Charlemagne, king of the Franks (AD 742-814), and the second book of Institution of Clerics witten by Rabanus Maurus, archbishop of Mainz (AD 780-856), also testified to this observance.
On the other hand, earliest witnesses to the observance of the season of Advent in the church of Rome are the liturgical books, especially the sacramentaries, especially the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries, which provided formularies for the Sundays of Advent, i.e. six weeks before Christmas. It was during the pontificate of Pope Gregory the Great (AD 540-604) that the number of weeks was reduced to four, and that has remained the tradition ever since. The letter of Pope Nicholas I (AD 800-867) to the Bulgarians also advocated the observance of Advent only for four weeks before Christmas.
The discipline in the church of Rome, after having reduced the time of the Advent fast, changed the fast into a simple abstinence. The councils of Selingstadt in 1122, and of Avranches in 1172, required only the clergy to observe the abstinence. The council of Salisbury in 1281, required only monks to keep it. Because of this confusion, Pope Innocent III (AD 1160-1216), in his letter to the bishop of Braga, mentioned the custom of fasting during the whole of Advent, as being at that time observed in Rome. In the thirteenth century, in his Rational on the Divine Offices, Durandus of Saint-Pourçain also mentioned that in France, fasting was uninterruptedly observed during the whole of that holy time. In 1362, Pope Urban V also endeavoured to prevent the total decay of the Advent penance by insisting that all clerics of his court should fast during Advent.
Thus, the liturgical form of Advent as it now exists in the church of Rome, has gone through several developments from its 40-day observance to four weeks, its present norm. However, regardless of that fact, the observance of the season of Advent has been proven not to be a modern Catholic invention but an ancient Christian event involving the perfection of one’s soul through fasting and abstinence.
Yet, in the book of Malachi, it has been prophesied: “’I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before Me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to His temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty. But who can endure the day of His coming? Who can stand when he appears? For He will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap” (3:1-2). Before, the Lord came into flesh (cf. 2 John 1:7) through Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke 1:35) to save mankind from the corruption of sin (cf. 1 Timothy 1:5). But, the Lord will come again in glory (cf. Mark 13:26) as He promised: “Look, I am coming soon, bringing my reward with me to repay all people according to their deeds” (Revelation 22:12).
WHO CAN ENDURE THE DAY OF HIS COMING?
Be prepared for the Lord Himself said: “I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you” (Revelation 3:3b).