Understanding Advent

Advent: Hope, Love, Joy & Peace

When. Advent marks the beginning of the church year. It begins with the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day and ends on Christmas Day.

What. Advent comes from the Latin word, adventus, meaning “coming.” It is a season to prepare for the coming of Christ in various meanings: the promised coming of the Messiah to the Jews, the coming of Jesus being born in Bethlehem, the promised return of the risen Christ in final victory, and the continual coming of Christ into the lives and hearts of believers.

Liturgical Context. Advent, which marks the beginning of the liturgical year, is part of the cycle of seasons that includes Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, all related in some fashion to the coming of Jesus. That cycle is followed by Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and the long Pentecost season.

History. Advent began in France in the fourth century. In various times and locations of the church, it has been observed for three, four, and six weeks leading to Christmas.

Color. The traditional color for Advent is purple. Some churches have adopted blue for Advent. In practice, however, as more churches incorporate the symbols and decorations of Christmas during Advent, more and more we see red, green, and gold appearing. The United Methodist Book of Worship upholds the traditional color of purple for Advent, signifying penitence and royalty, but also allows blue, the color of hope.

Themes, Images, Symbols, and Practices. There are a number of historic and traditional themes observed during Advent:

  • Preparing to celebrate the coming of Christ:
    • The coming of the Messiah to the Jews.
    • The coming of Jesus into the world at Bethlehem.
    • The second coming of Jesus in final victory.
    • The continual coming of Jesus into the hearts and lives of believers.
  • A time of penitence and fasting, austerity, seriousness, reading of Scripture, hearing and proclaiming the Word in sermon and song; waiting and longing for the Messiah’s coming
  • Symbols: Chrismon tree with its white monograms, the Jesse tree, Advent calendars, trumpets (for Isaiah), the messianic rose, star of Jacob, and fleur-de-lis. Modern innovation includes the use of an Advent wreath with four candles and themes around hope-peace-love-joy, John-Elizabeth-Joseph-Mary, or some other pattern.
  • Our Book of Worship (page 238) calls for the following themes for the Sundays of Advent:
    • First Sunday: the final return of Christ in victory; the Second Coming
    • Second and Third Sundays: John the Baptist, his role, his words, his teachings
    • Fourth Sunday: the events immediately preceding Jesus’ birth

The Intrusion of Christmas. Advent is a season rich in tradition, symbolism, art, music, and liturgical practice. It has its own unique themes as well as those that point the way to Christmas. And yet, we annually confront the pressures and questions of “Why can’t we put up the Christmas tree in the sanctuary on the first Sunday of Advent?” and “Why can’t we sing Christmas carols in early December?” The answer, of course, is that doing so allows Christmas to intrude. It allows the themes, practices, spirituality, history, traditions, symbols, art, and music of one season to displace those of another. We lose the richness and the benefit of experiencing the promise, longing, hope, and expectation of Advent. The world, television, and shopping malls have done all they can to convince us that Advent does not matter it has no place in our culture and many of us have come to accept that for our church, as well. Our faith teaches us something very different.

This information is adapted from an article written by Dean McIntyre of GBOD in 2006.