Focus of the Season. Advent is the season for God’s people to reflect on the Person of Christ Jesus, and especially the mystery of His Incarnation that He is both fully God and fully man, as summarized in the Nicene Creed. This reflection looks both backward and forward. We look back to His First Coming and the precedents of His kingship anticipated from the patriarchs onward. He is Israel’s long-anticipated Messiah. At the same time, since His ascension to the right hand of God the Father, we look forward to His return in the Second Coming to usher in the Final Judgment and the fullness of His Kingdom in consummating glory.
History of the Season. Advent as a season did not come into being until the Church began regularly observing the Feasts of the Nativity (i.e., Christmas, December 25) and Epiphany (January 6), and there is little evidence that either of those feasts were observed before AD 380. The first clear observance of a Feast of the Nativity was in AD 380, when Gregory Nazianzus (329-390), a prominent theologian and defender of the Nicene Creed, presided over the Feast in Constantinople. Shortly thereafter, an all-Church council in Constantinople definitively reaffirmed the truth of the Nicene Creed, officially ending the Arian conflict which for 55 years had brought strife to the Church by questioning Jesus’s full divinity and full humanity. A few years later, another defender of Nicene orthodoxy, John Chrysostom (349-407), referenced the existence a Feast of the Nativity in 386. Still, it does not appear that either the Feast of the Nativity or the Feast of the Epiphany were regularly observed across the Roman Empire for quite some time. For example, in Alexandria, Egypt, a major center for the ancient Church, the Feast of the Nativity was not adopted until about 430. What may have boosted observance of Christmas was a series of sermons in the 440s and 450s that Pope Leo the Great (400-461) gave on the occasion of the Feast of the Nativity to defend the orthodox understanding of the Nicene Creed, as well as the orthodox position on debates at that time in which the Church grappled with how to define the relationship between Christ’s human and divine natures.
In the ancient Church, the Western Church observed the Nativity (Christmas) on December 25, while the Eastern Church (Asia Minor, the Levant, and Egypt) observed the Epiphany (Holy Theophany) on January 6. Substantively, both East and West celebrated Christ’s Incarnation and manifestation among His people. The difference in dates probably was due in part to the Eastern Church’s continued use of the Julian Calendar after the Western Church moved to adopt the Gregorian calendar. It is because of these two dates that we have the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” As the Eastern Church adopted Christmas, it began to distinguish the commemoration of Christ’s birth from the commemoration of His baptism (the Presentation of the Lord, celebrated on February 2). The exact origins of Advent are obscure, but it probably began as a preparatory period since the Church would welcome new communicants into fellowship on Christmas or Epiphany. The length of Adventide varied, from as short as three weeks to as long as eight. It was only during the pontificate of Gregory the Great (r. 590-604) that the Advent was set at the four Sundays prior to Christmas.
Readings for the Season. The Old Testament readings this year go through 1 Samuel to 2 Samuel 17, recounting the establishment of the kingship in Israel, the rise and fall of Saul, the rise of David, his sin with Bathsheba, and the subsequent civil war that ensued as God’s punishment upon him for that sin. The New Testament readings cover the Johannine writings, namely the Gospel of John, his three letters, and the Book of Revelation. The Psalms are selected Psalms of kingship, appropriate for a season in which we remember and looking forward to the coming of our King.