ADVENT AND CHRISTMAS IN THE LITURGICAL CALENDAR
The word "advent" is from the Latin adventus, meaning "an arrival." In the Church calendar, Advent is the liturgical season that begins the Church year. Advent begins on the Sunday after the Solemnity of Christ the King and continues for four weeks until the vigil of the Christ Mass. It is during this time that the Church gets ready for the "arrival" of the Savior as we prepare to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity. Our preparation includes fasting, prayer, and meditating on God's precious gift of the Savior. This special time of preparation has been observed in the Church since as early as the fourth century and is a time specifically mentioned in the documents of the Council of Saragossa in 380AD.
Although this should be a time when we look back in time to the First Advent of the Messiah, born in the little stable in Bethlehem, it is also a time in which to look forward, to the Second Advent of the Christ, when He promised He would return (Matthew 24:30-31; 1 Thessalonians 4:16). It is therefore important for us to get our lives in order, to humbly come to Jesus in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to purify our souls so we will be able to present ourselves as a pure and holy people to our Lord and Savior. In the solitude of the Advent experience, we make ourselves ready, in humility, to hear both the Archangel's trumpet and the hymn of the choir of angels so that we can share in the experience of the humble shepherd and be prepared to be awestruck by the miracle of the arrival of the Redeemer-Messiah.
It is for this reason that Advent is a time of great joy. The Church family acknowledges that joy on the Third Sunday in Advent, which we call Gaudete (gow-day'-tay) Sunday. The name of the Third Sunday is derived from the first Latin word of the Introit*, which is the word "rejoice." Each Mass has its own entrance antiphon. The entrance antiphon is a sentence or two, usually from Sacred Scripture. The entrance antiphon for the Third Sunday of Advent begins in Latin with the words: Gaudete in Domino semper (Rejoice in the Lord always!) (Psalm 32:11; 32:11; 97:12; Philippians 3:1; Philippians 4:4). The vestments for this liturgy are rose colored, a sign of the rejoicing over the nearness of our redemption.
The Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after the Third Sunday of Advent are called the Winter Ember Days. There was a time when all Wednesdays and Fridays of the year were devoted to fasting, prayer, and works of charity. Pope Callistus I started the observance of Ember Days in the third century AD. He based the observance of days of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving on the Jewish tradition of the annual holy feasts which also coincided with the seasonal harvests, but the people also saw a parallel to their traditional pagan harvest feasts and the Church encouraged the Christian converts to abandon their traditional pagan agricultural festivals in favor of the celebrations in the Church's Liturgical Calendar.
The Church's celebrations of the seasons (in Latin quatturo tempora) in the Liturgical Calendar experienced a number of changes down through the centuries until 1078 when Pope Gregory VII assigned the specific days on which these days of fasting and prayer would be observed by the Universal Church. He selected the week between the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent, the week after the first Sunday of Lent, the week after Pentecost and after the Feast of the Holy Cross on September the 14th as the times to observe the seasonal days of penance through fasting, pray, and almsgiving.
At Pope Gregory's direction the end of each of the four seasons of the year, a Sunday was dedicated to giving thanks to God for His blessings upon His covenant people, as the members of the Church family gave thanks to God for the bounty of the seasonal harvest. The people fasted and prayed on Wednesday and Friday and the Saturday until the vigil Mass, which was the time to break the fast and begin the celebration which would reach its high point in the Sunday Mass. These Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays came to be called the "Ember Days," from an Old English word ymbren, meaning "a season or period of time." These were the Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays that came before the Sunday that marked the "Season of Thanks" to God for His blessings. Included in the four seasons of the year, therefore, there were twelve such penitential days of fasting and prayer during Advent and Lent, and in the summer and fall. The Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday between the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent were designated the winter Ember Days in thanks for God's blessing at the end of the fruit harvest.
In 1966, Pope Paul VI did not include the Ember Days as times of fasting and prayer in the reorganization of penitential discipline in the Church, and the Ember Days were no longer included in the Roman Missal. In 1969 the Sacred Congregation of Rites in their revision of the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar left it to the discretion of the conference of bishops whether or not to observe the Ember Days. Although some Catholic countries still celebrate the Ember Days, the bishops of the United States have decided not to observe them. This does not mean that individual Catholics in the United States can't privately observe special days of fasting and prayer in preparation for the Feast of the Nativity.
The fourth week of Advent, from December 17th to December 23rd, is a time of special prayer in the Church. This week has been compared to the final hours of nighttime before the coming of the dawn, the dawn which heralds the coming of the Messiah. The Church looks forward to this "dawning" of the Messiah through singing chants at Evening Prayer known as the O Antiphons. This name derives from the beginning of each chant with the word "O." These antiphons reflect many of the titles of the Christ:
One of the best known is the antiphon "O Emmanuel," which inspired one of our favorite Christmas hymns: "O come, O come, Emmanuel." At the Christmas Vigil Mass the Church family sings "Today you will know the Lord is coming, and in the morning you will see God's glory." Our dark night is almost over!
The Christ Mass in the morning begins the season of Christmas in the Liturgical Calendar. The Christmas Season lasts from the Christ Mass until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (the next Sunday after the Sunday celebration of Epiphany). From Christmas Day to New Year's Day is what is called the "Christmas octave." Octaves are the Church's observance of unique eight-day weeks,in Sacred Scripture "eight" is the number of redemption, salvation, and resurrection. It was on the eighth day after His birth that Jesus was circumcised, the "sign" of His entrance into the covenant family, and He was given His name: Yeshua, which means "Yahweh saves" or "Yahweh is salvation." On this day, January 1st, we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, remembering Mary as she presented her son in God's holy Jerusalem Temple forty days after his birth. Between the Feast of the Nativity and the Feast of Christ's Baptism is the joyous Feast of Epiphany (in the USA and Canada, the first Sunday after January 1st) when, like the Magi, we follow the Bethlehem star to our heart's desire-to kneel at the feet of the Christ-Child.
We invite you to increase your knowledge of this holy season through the Bible Study "The Advent of the Messiah" found in the Bible Study section of the website. It is our prayer that the joyous blessings God has given us in the celebration of Advent and Christmas blossoms in your hearts and remains with you throughout the year.
*Introit: The short passage of Scripture, usually from the Psalms or prophets, together with an antiphon, was formerly the introduction to the Roman rite Mass. Now replaced by the Entrance Ceremony, the Introit was read when the celebrant first went to the right side of the altar after he had said the prayers at the foot of the altar. The word is taken from the Latin word introitus, meaning an "entering." The Introit was added to the Mass in 1650 in a new missal published during the pontificate of Pius V. It is rarely used now and in accord with the General Instructions of the Roman Missal is replaced by the "entrance song" (The Catholic Encyclopedia, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1973, pages 300-301).
Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2008 (On the Feast of Christ the King) Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.