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Outside the Christian Church, the word “advent” is associated with something that is on the brink of coming, such as, “the advent of the fiscal collapse” heard in the news recently. In the Church, though, Advent is a season of waiting, of expectation, hope and preparation.
Advent is the season in the Church which precedes the annual remembrance of the birth of Jesus Christ. It begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas, often as in this year, the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The most obvious observance in the Church is marking time by each week lighting one more candle in the Advent Wreath—a circle of greens with four candles lit in succession. On Christmas Day, those candles are replaced with a single white candle in the center—the Christ candle.
Another obvious sign is the color of the season. Often purple has been used for the color of the candles as well as the vestments worn by ministers and the coverings for Altar, pulpit and lectern. Purple is usually used for penitential seasons of the Church, notably Lent, which precedes Easter. Advent was called the “Little Lent” as a time of penitence preparing for Christ’s arrival. The English tradition though is to use a deep blue as the color of the season. Equally a color of royalty, blue is the color associated with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and separates Advent’s expectation from Lent’s penitence.
The Sundays of Advent recall the prophecies of the Hebrew Testament of the coming of Messiah as well as the Annunciation (announcement) of the Archangel Gabriel to Elizabeth and Mary of the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus, his cousin, and the assurance to Zechariah and Joseph (their husbands). To prepare for the coming of Messiah, the story of John is told who proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah and prepared the way for Christ’s earthly ministry
With the marking of time, of expectation, the lighting of successive candles (perhaps modeled on the Hanukkah lights), another tradition is counting down the days with an Advent Calendar. Usually a child’s entertainment, an Advent Calendar is a two-layered board with a picture of the season on top. It contains 25 numbered windows (from December 1st) which are opened one day at a time. Behind each window can be a verse from the Bible, or more popular with the children, a coin or piece of chocolate. Even in the secular world, we recognize the excitement of children as the days are counted down. Usually it is because of Santa Claus, but the Advent wreath and calendar help them focus on the “reason for the season.”
[Fr. Erb is pastor at Grace Episcopal Church in Honesdale, PA.]