History of Adventide

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 380 AD.  There are only two data points one can point to regarding these feasts before 380.  The first is a reference in a Roman almanac in 354 AD that Christ’s Nativity was on December 25, but there is no evidence that there was any kind of observance of the Feast at that time.  The only other data point is a mention of one observance of the Feast of Epiphany (Manifestation) in about 360 AD.  The first clear observance of a Feast of the Nativity was in 380, when Gregory Nazianzus (329-390 AD), 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 AD), made reference to the existence a Feast of the Nativity in 386 AD.  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 AD.  What may have boosted observance of Christmas was a series of sermons in the 440s and 450s AD that Pope Leo the Great (400-461 AD) 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 celebrated Christ’s Incarnation and manifestation among His people, and 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 AD) that the Advent was set at the four Sundays prior to Christmas. Focus of the Season.   Advent is the season in the Christian calendar for God’s people to reflect on the Person of Christ Jesus, and in particular, the mystery of His Incarnation that He is both fully God and fully man, as summarized in the Nicene Creed.  In thinking about the Advent of our Lord, there is an element of both looking backward and looking forward.  We look back to His First Coming and the precedents of His kingship anticipated from the patriarchs onward.  He is the 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 consummating glory. The Readings for the Season.  Given this understanding, the daily readings for this season are from Genesis, the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Revelation.  Genesis provides the covenantal foundation for God’s relationship to His people.  It is because of God’s covenantal promises that Christ came to save His people from the bondage of sin.  The Gospel of Matthew self-consciously provides the most direct connections in the New Testament to Christ as the fulfillment of Old Covenant expectations, and Revelation shows the anticipation of God’s people for Christ’s return at the end of time.  The Psalms are various psalms of kingship.  The Sunday reading before Advent is from the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) on the Covenant (ch. 7).  The four Sunday Advent special readings highlight Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah, and after those Sundays, the Sunday readings are from the Westminster Standards about the Person of Christ.