Advent commences the new year in the liturgical worship tradition, not Jan. 1.
Advent, which is Latin for “coming” or “arrival,” is the four-week period leading up to Christmas. It begins in late November or early December and culminates on Christmas morning.
According to the Catholic News Agency, several fifth century writings urged worshippers to set aside time prior to Christmas for fasting and reflection.
While historical records are not entirely clear, it appears that a 40-day period, similar to that of Lent, was set aside to prepare for Christmas.
By the 10th century, it had become standard practice for congregations to observe four Sundays of Advent. These four weeks were (and are) days filled with expectation, offering worshippers a time to prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ birth.
During this time, most churches focus on singing hymns of expectation, such as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”
Yet, due to cultural influence in which Christmas songs are played on the radio the day after Thanksgiving, many churches also sing Christmas hymns during these weeks.
On the first Sunday of Advent – or in a special service prior to this day – some churches bring the Advent décor into the sanctuary and set it in place.
This practice is known as “Hanging of the Greens.” It is an opportunity to (re)introduce the Advent season to the congregation and explain the meanings of the elements, such as the Chrismon tree.
Each week of Advent focuses on a different theme. While themes vary within and between local churches and their denominations – and many variations have been suggested – the most common themes are: hope, peace, joy and love
The vestments displayed in the sanctuary during Advent are purple – representing royalty and honor as well as repentance and fasting – and the sermons are often connected to each Sunday’s theme.
The lectionary readings vary from year to year but usually include prophetic texts that were connected to Jesus’ birth by the gospel writers and gospel readings from the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke.
Preachers could select a lectionary text they feel illumines that Sunday’s Advent theme or select a biblical text allowing them to focus the sermon on the day’s topic.
For example, a sermon based on Jeremiah 6:1-14 could urge reflection on the danger of proclaiming a false peace and recall that Jesus’ coming necessitates decision and can lead to conflict and division (see Matthew 2:1-18 and Matthew 10).
It would be prudent to relate the children’s sermon to the thematic progression of Advent as well.
This time in the service also provides an opportunity to explore ways to (re)teach children the significance of Advent, helping them understand its purpose and progression.
The advent wreath, containing five candles, is a focal point in the sanctuary. There are three purple candles and one pink candle on the outside of the wreath, with one white candle in the center.
The purple candles represent the themes of hope, peace and love; the pink candle represents joy; and the white candle, known as the “Christ candle,” represents the coming of Christ.
One candle is lit each Sunday of Advent, usually accompanied with a congregational litany. Worship leaders can involve the congregation by asking individuals or families to lead the litanies and light the candles.
Purple candles are lit on the first, second and fourth Sundays while the pink candle is lit on the third Sunday. The Christ candle is lit during a Christmas Eve or Christmas day service when the purple colors are replaced with white.
The Christ candle remains lit throughout “Christmastide,” the 12 days after Christmas, which has been popularized through the children’s song, “The 12 Days of Christmas.”
The Christmas season officially culminates on Jan. 6, known as Epiphany, which celebrates the revelation of God to magi (wise men) who journeyed to find the infant Jesus (see Matthew 2:1-12). In most churches, Epiphany is observed on the Sunday that falls between Jan. 2 and 8.
In a culture increasingly enamored with instant gratification, Advent provides a time for disciplined self-restraint as worshippers set aside moments for thoughtful, hope-filled reflection as they await the celebration of God’s coming.
Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com.