The History of Advent in the Church

Can you hear it? That faint sound of Christmas music ringing through the air, colder weather coming to call, and the twinkling of Christmas lights. Yes, it’s that time of year again. There are a million things to do and shopping lists are a mile long. With this season comes great expectations. One thing most of us neglect is what this season really means.

We need to take the time to reflect on the gift of Christ during the Christmas season. 

The practice of Advent is just what we need to remain focused on the true reason for the season. It isn’t limited to denomination or to a prescriptive set of rules. Advent is a season with the purpose of focusing our hearts on the Savior. 

What exactly is Advent?

Advent is a season known throughout the world. It is a practice known through most denominations and is practiced amongst most believers during the Christmas season. Yet, there is much about Advent that we do not know or even grasp a full understanding of the purpose of the season. 

Advent comes from the Latin word adventus and the Greek parousia. This word is used both for the coming of Christ in the flesh and the second coming of Christ in the future.

Traditionally, the first two weeks of Advent were designated as looking forward to the future return of Christ. The time yet to come when Christ will return to Earth to finally rule and reign as the King of Kings. 

The second two weeks of Advent traditionally focused on the first coming of Christ in the manger. This time allows us to rest in the peace of the Savior who has come and worshiped Him for the gift of Salvation He brought with Him.

Regardless, for the Advent season, it is reflective of who we are as a Church, waiting for Christ to come again. We are in the “last days,” we have been in these days since the ascension of Christ. Since those moments when Christ ascended the church has waited for His return.  

Advent is rejoicing in the birth of our Savior and looking forward to His return.

Where did the practice of Advent begin?

The practice of Advent is not in Scripture, it was a practice developed late in the fourth century and became a widespread practice in Christian churches worldwide by the sixth century. 

When the practice of Advent in the 4th century was originally developed within the church it was a time of preparation for baptism. The practice in the early Catholic Church was a three-year preparation period with baptism following Epiphany or Easter. The focus of Advent was set up to help baptismal candidates focus on the last things and the second coming of Christ as they prepared themselves to be baptized and for their new lives in Christ. 

As the tradition of Advent continued to be practiced among Christians, especially within the Catholic Church it began to take on different meanings and contexts and became more ritual than a practice. 

By the time the 6th century rolled around Advent was a time the Roman Catholic church used to look forward to the coming of Christ. But not the first coming in the manger in Bethlehem, but the second coming. 

In 1784, the practice became part of the American Methodist church and took the form to be what we now know as Advent. John Wesley made it a part of the liturgical calendar and turned it into the four Sundays preceding Christmas. It no longer was used for baptism but was put in place as a reminder of the birth of the Savior. 

In 1839, the Advent wreath first appeared in Germany. It was created by a Lutheran minister. He placed twenty small red candles and four large white candles inside the right wheel from a chart. Each of the red candles was lit on weekdays and the four white candles were lit on Sundays. As time went on the wreath was made from evergreens which symbolized everlasting life. 

The traditions of the candles vary but most often the four primary candles represent hope, faith, joy, and peace. One candle is lit each Sunday of the Advent season, traditionally the lighting of the candles accompanies the reading of Scripture and prayer, pointing our hearts to the reason for the season. 

Throughout time the practice of Advent has lost its meaning and simply become the lighting of candles and the reciting of verses rather than the focus and posture of the heart in the time leading up to Christmas. 

Why should we make Advent a practice for our Christmas season?

With all the rich history behind the practice of Advent, there is a great benefit to every believer by making this a part of their Christmas season. Not because we need one more thing to do but because we need our minds focused on what matters. 

I have noticed in the years that I have participated in Advent I am more likely to choose slow over rush. I am prepared to say no to extra and unnecessary activities that the season can bring. When my heart is focused on what matters, my life will reflect that truth. 

I can choose to spend the season reflecting on the joy and salvation that Christ brought with him, and the eternal hope and rescue to come in the future. This is how we should live, not just in the Advent season but all year round. 

As believers, our lives should always be marked with the hope of what is to come. 

There are many ways to add the Advent practice into your Christmas season. Whether participating in an Advent Bible study, lighting candles each day of Advent, or implementing another tradition there is no right or wrong way to do it. 

However, you apply the practice in your home during the season, let it be marked by hope for the future and joy for the birth of our Savior. 

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