Here's the 2016 version of my Advent post. We'll look at why we even have an Advent, what it is, the various ways it has been and is observed, and what it shows about the proverbial "real" meaning of Christmas.
Why Have An Advent?
Scripture records the birth of Jesus, but it records no direction to celebrate either it or a preparation for it. But it records no prohibition of doing so either. The Christian Church has evolved various practices to commemorate one of its most outrageous claims, that God became Man in Jesus, the Incarnation, and, considering the magnitude of what is celebrated, has evolved a season of preparation for it universally, both Eastern and Western church. These celebrations have taken on various forms in various places, and even various forms over time in the same place. But they all have the same idea, for Christ's church to celebrate to-gether and proclaim one of the world- and life-changing events of Christ. Which is the idea of all of the church's liturgy.
What Is Advent?
Advent comes from the Latin adventus, which means a turning toward, a coming, and translates the Greek word parousia, which designates not the coming of Jesus at his birth but his coming again to judge the world on the Last Day. Advent is in fact a preparation for three comings of, or turnings toward, Christ, and the three will culminate in three distinct liturgies for Christmas, Christ's Mass. No other season or celebration in the church year is like this.
Here are the three. 1) Our Advent preparation for the historical coming or birth of Jesus culminates in the celebration of that event in the mass in the night, Midnight Mass. 2) Our Advent preparation for the coming or birth of Jesus in the heart of believers, in us, culminates in the mass at dawn, as evidenced in the first believers, the shepherds who went to the manger. 3) Our Advent preparation for his second historical coming, in judgement and in glory, which has been the subject of the final Sundays of the church year before Advent, culminates in the mass during the day, which celebrates the eternal generation of the Son in the Trinity in the being of God, in which redeemed Man will fully participate after the end of time.
Advent then precedes Christmas as Lent precedes Easter, a time of repentance and preparation. For both seasons, church vestments etc are purple, the colour associated both with penance, our part, and royalty, his part as King of kings. However, the purple is the darker royal purple rather than the Roman purple of Lent, the colours like the seasons they reflect being both similar yet distinct in kind of event to which they lead.
In some places recent usage has varied, derived from the rite of Salisbury in England. Salisbury is called Sarum in Latin, and the Sarum Rite has a hybrid liturgy of English and French influences following the Norman Conquest in 1066. It's part of a massive change in history. Duke William II of Normandy, aka the "Conqueror" and King William I of England, the first of the Norman kings of England, created the diocese out of two earlier ones and appointed a fellow Norman its bishop, "Saint" Osmund, the Count of Seez and Earl of Dorset and his Lord Chancellor, with the approval of Pope Gregory VII. Well sort of approval. This was part of the Normans' rather systematic assertion of control over everything -- more on that below.
Meanwhile, old Pope Greg was having a hard sell on his championship of clerical celibacy and the supremacy of church, meaning the Roman Church under the pope, over state among the Germans -- hell, he excommunicated Heinrich (Henry) IV, King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor, not once but twice -- and so as not to spread his efforts too thin he cut the Normans some slack. How's that for "apostolic succession"! And oh yeah, Greg's a "saint" too in the Roman church.
William as a duke in Normandy was still under the French king, Phillip I, (duke ranks just below king) but now as king of England, which he was crowned on Christmas 1066, he was on an equal basis. William also messed up our good Germanic language English by making French the language of the ruling class, which it remained for about 300 years, and by the end of his reign (1087) about 90% of England was under a French-born aristocracy with which he replaced the native English one, forever changing English culture. Yeah, the Anglo-Saxon culture was an import too, but hey, we Angles were ASKED by the original English to come over from Germany, and gave the place its name, Angle-land, England. The Saxons and Jutes can speak for themselves. But I digress.
The Sarum rite Scripture readings and other prayers proper to the day are different than the Roman rite, as is the colour of vestments, not purple but blue. This use of blue as the colour for Advent has had a more general usage in the West in recent years, though with the Roman propers. Well, not the traditional Roman propers, but the new ones from its three year cycle from the 1960s, which is the basis of the common new lectionary for all heterodox liturgical churches and which will not be considered here. One can look them up and put on a little Simon and Garfunkle or other holdovers of the time if one is so inclined.
So, several problems with the use of Sarum blue. One, it does have an historical precedent, but that precedent is not a happy one. Two, the use is inconsistent, being Sarum colour but Roman readings, but the ones from the 1970 novus ordo, not the traditional ones. Three, being inconsistent it is not historical either but rather a modern pastiche, as post-Vatican II liturgy generally is, of something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue, in this case literally. Four, the blue with its symbolism of the sky unduly weights the symbolism of the liturgical colour toward the second coming, the parousia, which is a theme of Advent but one of three, whereas the penitence and preparation symbolised by purple is common to all three themes of Advent.
The Old Advent, "St Martin's Fast".
In fact, Advent in the West used to be even more like Lent. From the fourth or fifth century or so there was, and as we shall shortly see still is in the Eastern church under the name Nativity Fast, a 40 day time of fasting and penance much like Lent. In the Western church it started on 11 November, the feast of St Martin of Tours, Martin Luther's baptismal namesake, with the day being something like Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, in Lent. The fast started the day after. This "quadragesima sancti Martini", the forty days of St Martin, died out by the late Middle Ages, and Advent as it is generally known now in the West took shape.
To this day, in some places the traditional main dish for Christmas is goose. In fact, one of my favourite phrases in English, not suitable for reproduction here, derives from this custom, let the reader understand. The Christmas goose may derive from Advent when it was St Martin's Fast. Martin didn't really want to be a bishop, and is said to have hidden himself in a flock of geese from those seeking him to persuade him to accept the post, whose noise nonetheless gave his location away. So goose became the main food for St Martin's Day kicking off Advent.
There is still an echo of the original Advent in the "last Sundays of the church year" in November, which have the general theme of looking forward to end of times and the second coming.
The Eastern Church follows to this day a similar, but not the same, 40 day pattern of a season of preparation and penitence before Easter and Christmas, and our former Western "St Martin's Fast" was closer to it. In the Eastern Church, it isn't called Advent, but the Nativity Fast, and lasts 40 days, just like the St Martin's Fast, but they count them consecutively, from 15 November to 24 December. That's why it also has a similar but not the same nickname: 15 November is the day after the feast, East or West, of St Philip the Apostle, so it is sometimes called "St Philip's Fast". The liturgical colour is neither purple nor blue, but red. Also, where in the Western church the liturgical year begins with the First Sunday in Advent, in the Eastern church the liturgical year begins 1 September.
The Current Advent.
Anyway, each Sunday emphasises a different aspect of the preparation and the comings noted above. Below are listed the Scripture passages used for the Introits and Scripture readings. Roman usage (which Rome ditched at Vatican II) has the same Introits but varies as noted from ours in the Epistles and Gospels for the Western Advent.
I had never understood this variation and mentioned that once in the combox on a blog. Pastor Benjamin Mayes responded citing Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy, p.438, which states our usage follows the Comes attributed to St Jerome and its final version, The Lectionary of Charlemagne, which Rome later modified to accommodate its new feasts.
What's a comes (pronounced KO-mays)? It's a Latin word meaning companion, here, a companion book of readings for mass to the rite's service book itself. Now we more commonly call such a book a Lectionary, from the Latin for "readings". The list of the readings is still often called by its Greek name, pericope, meaning section, here, the sections of Scripture appointed to be read.
In Latin and Hebrew, the title of a text is usually the first word or two of the text, called the incipit, which means "it begins" in Latin, rather than a separate title. Accordingly, some of the Sundays of the church year are called from the first word of the first proper text to them, the Introit. The Sundays of Advent, Lent, and after Easter are nicknamed from their Introits. This practice has fallen into disuse with many churches following Rome's 1960s revisionism of the lectionary. Or one can as my former synod did abolish Introits altogether!
Another similarity between Advent and Lent is that a little over halfway through these preparation/penitential seasons, the coming joy peeks through in the readings, starting with the Introit, and so the liturgical colours reflect that with the purple yielding for that Sunday to rose or pink, which is also why the so-called Advent wreath has a rose or pink candle among the rest. It's for the third Sunday in Advent, which is called Gaudete Sunday from the incipit of the Introit for it, which means "rejoice" and quotes Philippians 4:4-6. The Lenten parallel with rose vestments is Laetare Sunday, from the incipit of the Introit, Laetare Jerusalem, which means "Be joyful Jerusalem" and quotes Isaiah 66:10-11.
Psalm numbers in the old Roman usage followed the Septuagint, whereas we follow the numbering of the Hebrew Bible. That usage counts what we call Psalms 9 and 10 as one psalm, likewise 114 and 115, and divides both 116 and 147 in two, so between 10 to 148 the numbering is different by one. Since Vatican II Rome generally uses the Hebrew Bible numbering too, but below both will be given in the format: Hebrew numbering (Septuagint numbering).
Here are the names and readings of the Sundays in Advent, with this year's dates.
Ad te levavi. The First Sunday of Advent. 27 November 2016.
Introit Psalms 25 (24):1-3 psalm verse 25 (24):4, Epistle Romans 13:11-15, Gospel Matthew 21:1-9.
(Roman usage Gospel Luke 21:25-33, our second Sunday Gospel.)
Populus Sion. The Second Sunday of Advent. 4 December 2016.
Introit Isaiah 30:30 psalm verse 80 (79):1, Epistle Romans 15:4-13, Gospel Luke 21:25-36.
(Roman usage Gospel Matthew 11:2-10, our third Sunday Gospel.)
Gaudete. The Third Sunday of Advent. 11 December 2016.
Introit Philippians 4:4-6 psalm verse 85 (84):1, Epistle First Corinthians 4:1-5, Gospel Matthew 11:2-10.
(Roman usage Epistle Philippians 4:4-7 Gospel John 1:19-28, our fourth Sunday readings.)
Rorate coeli. The Fourth Sunday of Advent. 18 December 2016.
Introit Isaiah 45:8 psalm verse 19 (18):1, Epistle Philippians 4:4-7, Gospel John 1:19-28.
(Roman usage Epistle First Corinthians 4:1-5 Gospel Luke 3:1-6, our third Sunday Epistle, the Luke passage not used by us.)
Away in an Animal Feeding Trough, or, The Real Meaning of Christmas.
Christmas is a warm time filled with comfort, family, presents, good food, along with our religious sentiments, for many of us. Christmas as in the event we celebrate was nothing like that. It was rough. Joseph wasn't the glowing saint of paintings and icons, he was a working guy with a pregnant wife about to give birth -- I've been there twice and that ain't easy under any circumstances, and my observation would be it ain't easy being the about to deliver wife either. He was in town to follow the law of foreign rulers and get counted in the census with all the hotels full and no place to put his family up but a stable for animals, and after the baby was born they had to put him in a feeding trough for animals. That's what "away in a manger" was. A manger is a feeding trough for animals, the word coming into English from the French to eat, in turn from the Latin to chew (mandere). Fact is, our word "munch" has the same root.
So the King of kings is put in a feeding trough for animals in a cold stable. You don't make up this kind of stuff. Humans who are gods in myth are emperors and such, not working class kids born in a barn. Top it all off, this child "away in a feeding trough" will one day give himself to be the food of eternal life, giving his body and blood for us to eat and drink at mass as the pledge and promise of our salvation through the merits of his death and resurrection. Guess it kind of fits then.
For those of you whose Christmas isn't going to be all warm and cozy and filled with cheer, guess what, you're right in there with those at the first Christmas. That was a little rough too. Born in a stable, a feeding trough for a crib, and pretty soon his family having to high tail it out of town into political exile too. So you're not excluded at all, and you can take it right to him, because he knows all about when Christmas isn't so merry, or happy, as the English say. And he also knows all about how merry and happy don't really get determined by what happens in this life, on Christmas or any other day!
To Thee have I lifted up my soul, in Thee, O my God, I put my trust. Let me not be ashamed, neither let my enemies laugh at me, for none of those that wait on Thee shall be confounded.
Psalm 25 (24):1-3 as used in the Introit for the First Sunday in Advent.
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