Advent is the holy season that precedes Christmas. From the Latin adventus (“arrival”), it is a time of hope and expectancy, when Christians prepare their hearts for the coming of Christ.
Advent encompasses the four Sundays (and weekdays) leading up to Christmas. It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, a date that changes every year. The length of the season varies between 22 and 28 days. In 2016, Advent begins on November 27.
Advent is the first season of the church calendar and marks the beginning of the liturgical year, the annual cycle of seasons observed by Christians through the centuries. At its most basic, the church calendar consists of fasts and feasts — seasons of preparation and celebration — that correspond to the key events of Christ’s life and ministry.
It’s appropriate that Advent opens the church year. Just as Luke’s Gospel begins with the birth of John the Baptist, the one who would “prepare the way” for Christ, the church’s yearly cycle begins with the preparatory rhythms of Advent.
Anticipating Two Arrivals
To be a follower of Jesus is to stand between His two arrivals: his birth in Bethlehem more than two thousand years ago and His promised second coming at the end of days. Advent pertains to both. As we remember with joy the day that Christ came, we look forward with hope to the day that He will come again.
At its root, Advent is a season of messianic anticipation, when Israel’s ancient longing for the Messiah echoes deeply in our own hearts as we watch and pray for Christ to return.
To reflect these themes, Advent is traditionally divided into two parts:
- The first two weeks focus on the second coming of Christ. The prayers, Scripture readings, and hymns are more solemn, drawing us to repentance as we look toward the last days.
- In the second two weeks, the mood lightens. We turn our focus to Christ’s birth and begin our joyful preparations for Christmas.
The turning point in the season is the third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for “Rejoice!” so we call it the Sunday of Joy. On this day, the themes of longing and repentance give way to expectant delight. We rejoice because Christmas is almost here!