Advent is a season of preparation for Christmas. Advent is from a Latin word meaning “to come.” Advent is about the coming of Jesus Christ.
Almighty God, heavenly Father, bestow upon us Thy grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which Thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility, that in the Last Day when He will come again in His glorious Majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may then rise to the life immortal;
– Collect for the Season of Advent
Although currently the season of Advent is four Sundays, throughout the history of the church, the season varied in length. This was partially determined by the fact that the dates for the celebration of Christmas and Epiphany were contested, and sometimes these celebrations were combined together. Eventually Christmas was celebrated on December 25. Advent developed to focus on the announcement of the angel to Zechariah and Elizabeth and to Joseph and Mary, as well as the ministry of John the Baptizer.
In the sixth century, the length of Advent, which had greatly fluctuated, was set at four weeks. It, like Lent, took on a penitential character.
Threefold Coming of Christ
Advent is more than preparing for Jesus to come in the manger at Christmas. There are three “comings” of Christ that we celebrate at Advent:
- His coming as the infant Jesus at Christmas;
- His coming to us now through His Word and Sacraments;
- His coming at the Last Day.
These three themes show us the different aspects of Advent and serve as a connection to the previous church year, which just ended on themes of the Last Day and the end times (eschatology).
Waiting for Christmas
Our society does not like to wait. We are commonly accustomed to getting things when we want and fast. We have fast food restaurants, drive-up banking and pharmacies, and self-checkout lanes at the store. So, when it comes to the festivities of the world’s winter festivals in late November through December, we are ready to celebrate.
Advent originated in part to counteract worldly festivals of indulgence. Today, Advent calls us to put aside time from the world’s “Happy Holidays” and repent of our sin and prepare for our coming Savior. Advent is designed to help us wait in anticipation for our coming Messiah and ponder His incarnation – the miraculous conception and birth of the Son of God in the flesh. We prepare for Him to come to us through His Word and Sacraments. And we prepare to meet Him when He comes again.
Therefore, while all the world is indulging with parties and giving and receiving in a winter wonderland, the church patiently and in hope prepares and expects the coming of Christ though the liturgy, hymns, and lessons of Advent.
During Advent, as a penitential season, the Gloria in Excelsis is omitted, to prepare us to sing it with the angels at Christmas at Midnight.
ADVENT COLLECTS: The historic collects for the four Sundays are also called the excita (“stir up”) prayers. Three of these prayers begin with the phrase: “Stir up…” This helps to create great unity through the season as each Sunday focuses on another Advent theme. It is customary to pray the collect for the first Sunday in Advent throughout the season at the Daily Office after the proper collect.
“O” ANTIPHONS: Each of the seven “O Antiphons” (see 357) for the Daily Office of Vespers on December 17-23 recalls a different messianic title. These antiphons are prayed before and after the Magnificat, as Advent enters its final stretch in preparing for Christ’s coming. These antiphons serve as the basis for the seven stanzas of the well-known Advent hymn,O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
ADVENT WREATH: The Advent wreath is a development from the time of the Reformation. It serves as a visible reminder of the waiting and preparation in Advent, as one candle each week is lit in anticipation of Christmas. On Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent, a rose candle is lit, to signify the theme of a quiet rejoicing that takes place on that Sunday.
There are many hymns that accent the themes of Advent, both historic and ancient. As mentioned, the well-known O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (357) is a versification of the “O Antiphons.”
Savior of the Nations, Come (332) is the Hymn of the Day for Ad Te Levavi, and may be used throughout Advent. This hymn is a translation by Martin Luther of an ancient Latin text by St. Ambrose. Another Latin hymn is Creator of the Stars of Night (351), an office hymn for Vespers.
Lutheran hymnist Paul Gerhardt wrote O Lord, How Shall I Meet You (334). This hymn draws together the imagery of the Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem, the Holy Gospel for Ad Te Levavi.
Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers (515) draws together the end-times themes that flow from the end of the church year previous into Advent, calling to mind some of the images of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.
The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came (356) is a familiar Basque carol accounting the events of the Annunciation, and thus is fitting concerning the Advent of Christ coming into the flesh.
These and many other hymns make up our fine corpus of hymnody for Advent from a broad range of times and places, giving voice to the universality of the church.