The Joyce Hill Column
Preparing for Christmas
How early this year did you see signs of the commercial world preparing for Christmas? I saw Christmas cards on sale in July, and in August banners inviting people to make restaurant bookings for the Christmas period. The church takes a rather more measured position! The liturgical preparation for Christmas begins, this year, on Sunday 27 November. The actual date varies because there are always four Sundays in Advent — the four Sundays immediately preceding Christmas Day — and since Christmas Day is a fixed date and so falls on a different day in successive years, the dates of the four Sundays preceding it are variable. Technically, Advent Sunday (the first of the four) occurs on the nearest Sunday to the Feast of St Andrew (30 November). But this always has the intended effect of giving us four Sundays before we get to Christmas Day, so in modern times, when we have the benefit of diaries, the easy option is to use them to count four Sundays backwards from 25 December.
Of course, Advent wasn’t able to come into existence as a season for the church’s year until the practice grew up of celebrating the Nativity itself, and that didn’t happen in the Western church until the early fourth century. There are signs that not long after this people began to prepare for the Feast of the Nativity by various penitential practices, including fasting — a kind of spiritual sprucing up in order to be ready for celebrating, on Christmas Day, the beginning of Christ’s life on earth as the commencement of the redemptive cycle. These practices put the preparation for the joy of Christmas on a similar footing to the penitential and self-denying preparation for the joy of Easter, which had already been celebrated on an annual basis from the beginning of the third century. The period preceding Easter gradually stabilised into the season we call Lent; that preceding Christmas in due course came to be called Advent, from the Latin adventus, meaning ‘coming’. This translates the Greek parousia, which is used in the New Testament to refer to the Second Coming. And so, from the start, the Western church has had a dual focus for Advent: anticipating the commemoration of the coming of God into the world in human form, in which the church rejoices in the liturgies of the Christmas season; and the anticipation of the Second Coming, foretold in the New Testament.
So the penitential preparation had a two-fold purpose also: for the forthcoming celebration of the Feast of the Nativity, and for the divine judgement at the Second Coming. Even so, the penitential nature of Advent was never quite as demanding as that of Lent. Nor is Advent as long as Lent. To begin with, this period of pre-Christmas preparation seems to have been undefined, and it remained variable for centuries, with the present practice of having four Sundays only gradually coming to be the norm. It also took a long time for Advent to be universally considered as the beginning of the church’s year, in preference to Christmas itself, which was the church’s ‘new year’ for many throughout much of the first thousand years.
But while this is how things developed in Western Christendom, there were different developments in the Orthodox church. In this tradition there is a Nativity Fast preceding the celebration of Christ’s birth, different in length from our Advent, and the period of preparation is without the dimension of reflection on the Second Coming: the Orthodox focus is much more on the prophesies of the Incarnation.