SEASON OF ADVENT
THE HOLY SEASON OF ADVENT
“AND THOU BETHLEHEM Ephrata, art a little one among the thousands of Juda: out of thee shall he
come forth unto me that is to be the ruler in Israel: and his going forth IS from the beginning, from the days of eternity.”
(Prophecy of Micheas, v. 2)
(Apoc, xxii. 20)
“Say to the cities of Juda: Behold your God. Behold the Lord God shall come with strength, and his arm shall rule: behold his reward is with him and his work is before him.”
(Prophecy of Isaias, xl. 9-10)
The History of Advent.
The name Advent (which from the Latin word Adventus, signifies a Coming) is applied, in the Latin Church, to that period of the year, during which the Church requires the faithful to prepare for the celebration of the Feast of Christmas, the anniversary of the Birth of Jesus Christ. The mystery of that great day had every right to the honour of being prepared for by prayer and works of penance; and, in fact, it is impossible to state, with any certainty, when this season of preparation (which had long been observed before receiving its present name of Advent) was first instituted. It would seem, however, that its observance first began in the West, since it is evident that Advent could not have been looked on as a preparation for the Feast of Christmas, until that Feast was definitively fixed to the twenty-fifth of December: which was only done in the East, towards the close of the fourth century; whereas, it is certain, that the Church of Rome kept the feast on that day at a much earlier period.
We must look upon Advent in two different lights: first, as a time of preparation, properly so called, for the Birth of our Saviour, by works of penance; and secondly, as a series of Ecclesiastical Offices drawn up for the same purpose. We find, as far back as the fifth century, the custom of giving exhortations to the people in order to prepare them for the Feast of Christmas. We have two Sermons of Saint Maximus of Turin on this subject, not to speak of several others, which were formerly attributed to St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, but which were probably written by St. Cesarius of Aries. If these documents do not tell us what was the duration and the exercises of this holy season, they at least show us how ancient was the practice of distinguishing the time of Advent by special sermons. St. Ivo of Chartres, St. Bernard, and several other Doctors of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, have left us set sermons de Adventu Domini, quite distinct from their Sunday Homilies on the Gospels of that season. In the Capitularia of Charles the Bald, in 846, the Bishops admonish that Prince not to call them away from their churches during Lent or Advent, under pretext of affairs of the State or the necessities of war, seeing that they have special duties to fulfil, and particularly that of preaching during those sacred times.
The oldest document, in which we find the length and exercises of Advent mentioned with anything like clearness, is a passage in the second book of the History of the Franks by St. Gregory of Tours, where he says that St. Perpetuus, one of his predecessors, who held that See about the year 480, had decreed a fast three times a week, from the feast of St. Martin [Nov. 11] until Christmas. It would be impossible to decide whether St. Perpetuus, by this regulation, established a new custom, or merely enforced an already existing law. Let us, however, note this interval of forty, or rather of forty-three days, so expressly mentioned, and consecrated to penance, as though it were a second Lent, though less strict and severe than that which precedes Easter.
Later on, we find the ninth canon of the first Council of Mâcon, held in 582, ordaining that during the same interval, between St. Martin's Day and Christmas, the Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, should be fasting days, and that the Sacrifice should be celebrated according to the Lenten Rite. Not many years before that, namely in 567, the second Council of Tours had enjoined the monks to fast from the beginning of December till Christmas. This practice of penance soon extended to the whole forty days, even for the laity; and it was commonly called St. Martin's Lent. The Capitularia of Charlemagne, in the sixth book, leave us no doubt on the matter; and Rabanus Maurus, in the second book of his Institution of Clerics, bears testimony to this observance. There were even special rejoicings made on St. Martin's Feast, just as we see them practised now at the approach of Lent and Easter.
The obligation of observing this Lent, which, though introduced so imperceptibly, had by degrees acquired the force of a sacred law, began to be relaxed, and the forty days from St. Martin's Day to Christmas were reduced to four weeks. We have seen that this fast began to be observed first in France; but thence it spread into England, as we find from Venerable Bede's History; into Italy, as appears from a diploma of Astolphus, King of the Lombards, dated 758; into Germany, Spain, &c, of which the proofs may be seen in the learned work of Dorn Martène, On the Ancient Rites of the Church. The first allusion to Advent's being reduced to four weeks, is to be found in the ninth century, in a letter of Pope St. Nicholas the First to the Bulgarians. The testimony of Ratherius of Verona, and of Abbo of Fleury, both writers of the tenth century, goes also to prove that, even then, the question of reducing the duration of the Advent fast by one-third was seriously entertained. It is true, that St. Peter Damian, in the eleventh century, speaks of the Advent fast as still being for forty days; and that St. Louis, two centuries later, kept it for that length of time; but as far as this holy King is concerned, it is probable that it was only his own devotion which prompted him to this practice.
The discipline of the Churches of the West, after having reduced the time of the Advent fast, so far relented, in a few years, as to change the fast into a simple abstinence; and we even find Councils of the twelfth century, for instance, Selingstadt in 1122, and Avranches in 1172, which seem to require only the clergy to observe this abstinence. The Council of Salisbury, held in 1281, would seem to expect none but monks to keep it. On the other hand, (for the whole subject is very confused, owing, no doubt, to there never having been any uniformity of discipline regarding it in the Western Church,) we find Pope Innocent III, in his letter to the Bishop of Braga, mentioning the custom of fasting during the whole of Advent, as being at that time observed in Rome; and Durandus, in the same thirteenth century, in his Rational on the Divine Offices, tells us that, in France, fasting was uninterruptedly observed during the whole of that holy time.
This much is certain, that, by degrees, the custom of fasting so far fell into disuse, that when, in 1362, Pope Urban the Fifth endeavoured to prevent the total decay of the Advent penance, all he insisted upon was that all the clerics of his court should keep abstinence during Advent, without in any way including others, either clergy or laity, in this law. St. Charles Borromeo also strove to bring back his people of Milan, to the spirit, if not to the letter, of ancient times. In his fourth Council, he enjoins the parish priests to exhort the faithful to go to communion on the Sundays, at least, of Lent and Advent; and afterwards addressed to the faithful themselves a Pastoral Letter, in which, after having reminded them of the dispositions wherewith they ought to spend this holy time, he strongly urges them to fast on the Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, at least, of each week in Advent. Finally, Pope Benedict the Fourteenth, when Archbishop of Bologna, following these illustrious examples, wrote his eleventh Ecclesiastical Institution for the purpose of exciting in the mind of his diocesans the exalted idea which the Christians of former times had of the holy season of Advent, and to the removing an erroneous opinion which prevailed in those parts, namely, that Advent only concerned Religious, and not the laity. He shows them, that such an opinion, unless it be limited to the two practices of fasting and abstinence, is strictly speaking, rash and scandalous, since it cannot be denied that, in the laws and usages of the universal Church, there exist special practices, having for their end the preparing the faithful for the great feast of the Birth of Jesus Christ.
The Greek Church still continues to observe the fast of Advent, though with much less rigour than that of Lent. It consists of forty days, beginning with the 14th of November, the day on which this Church keeps the feast of the Apostle St. Philip. During this entire period, the people abstain from flesh-meat, butter, milk, and eggs; but they are allowed, which they are not during Lent, fish, oil, and wine. Fasting, in its strict sense, is only binding on seven out of the forty days; and the whole period goes under the name of St. Philip's Lent. The Greeks justify these relaxations by this distinction; that the Lent before Christmas is, so they say, only an institution of the monks, whereas the Lent before Easter is of Apostolic institution.
But, if the exterior practices of penance which formerly sanctified the season of Advent, have been, in the Western Church, so gradually relaxed as to have become now quite obsolete except in monasteries; the general character of the Liturgy of this holy time has not changed; and it is by their zeal in following its spirit, that the Faithful will prove their earnestness in preparing for Christmas.
The liturgical form of Advent as it now exists in the Roman Church, has gone through certain modifications. St. Gregory seems to have been the first to draw up the Office for this season, which originally included five Sundays, as is evident from the most ancient Sacramentaries of this great Pope. It even appears probable, and the opinion has been adopted by Amalarius of Metz, Berno of Richenaw, Dom Martène, and Benedict the Fourteenth, that St. Gregory originated the ecclesiastical precept of Advent, although the custom of devoting a longer or shorter period to a preparation for Christmas has been observed from time immemorial, and the abstinence and fast of this holy season first began in France. St. Gregory therefore fixed, for the Churches of the Latin rite, the form of the Office for this Lent like season, and sanctioned the fast which had been established, granting a certain latitude to the several Churches as to the manner of its observance.
The Sacramentary of St. Gelasius has neither Mass nor Office of preparation for Christmas; the first we meet with are in the Gregorian Sacramentary, and, as we just observed, these Masses are five in number. It is remarkable that these Sundays were then counted inversely, that is, the nearest to Christmas was called the first Sunday, and so on with the rest. So far back as the ninth and tenth centuries, these Sundays were reduced to four, as we learn from Amalarius, St. Nicholas the First, Berno of Richenaw, Ratherius of Verona, &c, and such also is their number in the Gregorian Sacramentary of Pamelius, which appears to have been transcribed about this same period. From that time, the Roman Church has always observed this arrangement of Advent, which gives it four weeks, the fourth beings that in which Christmas Day falls, unless the 25th of December be a Sunday [and if 24th of December be a Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Advent being omitted, is replaced by the Vigil of Christmas]. We may therefore consider the present discipline of the observance of Advent as having lasted a thousand years, at least as far as the Church of Rome is concerned; for some of the Churches in France kept up the number of five Sundays as late as the thirteenth century.
The Ambrosian Liturgy, even to this day, has six weeks of Advent; so has the Gothic or Mozarabic Missal. As regards the Gallican Liturgy, the fragments collected by Dom Mabillon give us no information; but it is natural to suppose with this learned man, whose opinion has been confirmed by Dom Martène, that the Church of Gaul adopted, in this as in so many other points, the usages of the Gothic Church, that is to say, that its Advent consisted of six Sundays and six weeks.
With regard to the Greeks, their Rubrics for Advent are given in the Menӕa, immediately after the Office for the 14th of November. They have no proper Office for Advent, neither do they celebrate during this time the Mass of the Presanctified, as they do in Lent. There are only in the Offices for the Saints, whose feasts occur between the 14th of November and the Sunday nearest Christmas, frequent allusions to the Birth of the Saviour, to the Maternity of Mary, to the cave of Bethlehem, &c. On the Sunday preceding Christmas, in order to celebrate the expected coming of the Messias, they keep what they call the Feast of the Holy Fathers, that is the commemoration of the Saints of the Old Law. They give the name of Ante-Feast of the Nativity to the 20th, 21st, 22nd, and 23rd December; and although they say the office of several Saints on these four days, yet the mystery of the Birth of Jesus pervades the whole Liturgy.
The Mystery of Advent.
If, now that we have described the characteristic features of Advent, which distinguish it from the rest of the year, we would penetrate into the profound mystery which occupies the mind of the Church during this season, we find that this mystery of the Coming, or Advent, of Jesus is at once simple and threefold. It is simple, for it is the one same Son of God that is coming; it is threefold, because he comes at three different times and in three different ways.
“In the first Coming,” says St. Bernard, “he comes in the flesh and in weakness; in the second, he comes in spirit and in power; in the third, he comes in glory and in majesty; and the second Coming is the means whereby we pass from the first to the third.”
This, then, is the mystery of Advent. Let us now listen to the explanation of this threefold visit of Christ, given to us by Peter of Blois, in his third Sermon de Adventu: “There are three Comings of our Lord; the first in the flesh, the second in the soul, the third at the judgment. The first was at midnight, according to those words of the Gospel: At midnight there was a cry made, Lo the Bride-groom cometh! (St. Matth, xxv. 6) But this first Coming is long since past, for Christ has been seen on the earth and has conversed among men. We are now in the second Coming, provided only we are such as that he may thus come to us; for he has said that if we love him, he will come unto us and will take up his abode with us (St. John, xiv. 23). So that this second Coming is full of uncertainty to us; for who, save the Spirit of God, knows them that are of God? They that are raised out of themselves by the desire of heavenly things, know indeed when he comes; but whence he cometh, or whither he goeth, they know not. As for the third Coming, it is most certain that it will be, most uncertain when it will be; for nothing is more sure than death, and nothing less sure than the hour of death. When they shall say, peace and security, says the Apostle, then shall sudden destruction come upon them, as the pains upon her that is with child, and they shall not escape (I Thess, v. 3). So that the first Coming was humble and hidden, the second is mysterious and full of love, the third will be majestic and terrible. In his first Coming, Christ was judged by men unjustly; in his second, he renders us just by his grace; in his third, he will judge all things with justice. In his first, a Lamb; in his last, a Lion; in the one between the two, the tenderest of Friends.”
The holy Church, therefore, during Advent, awaits in tears and with ardour the arrival of her Jesus in his first Coming. For this, she borrows the fervid expressions of the Prophets, to which she joins her own supplications. These longings for the Messias expressed by the Church, are not a mere commemoration of the desires of the ancient Jewish people; they have a reality and efficacy of their own,—an influence in the great act of God's munificence, whereby he gave us his own Son. From all eternity, the prayers of the ancient Jewish people and the prayers of the Christian Church ascended together to the prescient hearing of God; and it was after receiving and granting them, that he sent, in the appointed time, that blessed dew upon the earth, which made it bud forth the Saviour.
The Church aspires also to the second Coming, the consequence of the first, which consists, as we have just seen, in the visit of the Bridegroom to the Spouse. This Coming takes place, each year, at the feast of Christmas, when the new birth of the Son of God delivers the faithful from that yoke of bondage, under which the enemy would oppress them. The Church, therefore, during Advent, prays that she may be visited by Him who is her Head and her Spouse; visited in her hierarchy; visited in her members, of whom some are living, and some are dead, but may come to life again; visited, lastly, in those who are not in communion with her, and even in the very infidels, that so they may be converted to the true light, which shines even for them. The expressions of the Liturgy which the Church makes use of to ask for this loving and invisible Coming, are those which she employs when begging for the coming of Jesus in the flesh; for the two visits are for the same object. In vain would the Son of God have come, [two thousand] years ago, to visit and save mankind, unless he came again for each one of us and at every moment of our lives, bringing to us and cherishing within us that supernatural life, of which he and his Holy Spirit are the sole principle.
But this annual visit of the Spouse does not content the Church; she aspires after a third Coming, which will complete all things by opening the gates of eternity. She has caught up the last words of her Spouse, Surely, I am coming quickly; (Apoc, xxii. 20) and she cries out to him, Ah! Lord Jesus! come! (Apoc, xxii. 20) She is impatient to be loosed from her present temporal state; she longs for the number of the elect to be filled up, and to see appear, in the clouds of heaven, the sign of her Deliverer and her Spouse. Her desires, expressed by her Advent Liturgy, go even as far as this: and here we have the explanation of those words of the beloved Disciple in his prophecy: The nuptials of the Lamb are come, and his Spouse hath prepared herself (Apoc, xix. 7).
But the day of this his last Coming to her, will be a day of terror. The Church frequently trembles at the very thought of that awful judgment, in which all mankind is to be tried. She calls it “a day of wrath, on which, as David and the Sibyl have foretold, the world will be reduced to ashes; a day of weeping and fear.” Not that she fears for herself, since she knows that this day will for ever secure to her the crown, as being the Spouse of Jesus; but her maternal heart is troubled at the thought that, on the same day, so many of her children will be on the left hand of the Judge, and, having no share with the elect, will be bound hand and foot, and cast into the darkness, where there shall be everlasting weeping and gnashing of teeth [St. Matth, xxv. 31-46]. This is the reason why the Church, in the Liturgy of Advent, so frequently speaks of the Coming of Christ as a terrible Coming, and selects from the Scriptures those passages, which are most calculated to awaken a salutary fear in the mind of such of her children as may be sleeping the sleep of sin.
This, then, is the threefold mystery of Advent. The liturgical forms in which it is embodied, are of two kinds: the one consists of prayers, passages from the Bible, and similar formulas, in all of which, words themselves are employed to convey the sentiments which we have been explaining; the other consists of external rites peculiar to this holy time, which, by speaking to the outward senses, complete the expressiveness of the chants and words.
First of all, there is the number of the days of Advent. Forty was the number originally adopted by the Church, and it is still maintained in the Ambrosian liturgy, and in the Eastern Church. If, at a later period, the Church of Rome, and those who follow her Liturgy, have changed the number of days, the same idea is still expressed in the four weeks which have been substituted for the forty days. The new Birth of our Redeemer takes place after four weeks, as the first Nativity happened after four thousand years, according to the Hebrew and Vulgate Chronology.
As in Lent, so likewise during Advent, Marriage is not solemnised, lest worldly joy should distract Christians from those serious thoughts wherewith the expected Coming of the Sovereign Judge ought to inspire them, or from that dearly cherished hope which the friends of the Bridegroom (St. John, iii. 29) have of being soon called to the eternal Nuptial-feast.
The people are forcibly reminded of the sadness which fills the heart of the Church by the sombre colour of the Vestments. Excepting on the Feasts of the Saints, purple is the only colour she uses; the Deacon does not wear the Dalmatic, nor the Subdeacon the Tunic. Formerly it was the custom, in some places, to wear Black Vestments. This mourning of the Church shows how fully she unites herself with those true Israelites of old, who, clothed in sackcloth and ashes, waited for the Messias, and bewailed Sion that she had not her beauty, and “Juda, that the sceptre had been taken from him, till He should come who was to be sent, the expectation of nations.” (Gen, xlix. 10) It also signifies the works of penance, whereby she prepares for the second Coming, full as it is of sweetness and mystery, which is realised in the souls of men, in proportion as they appreciate the tender love of that Divine Guest, who has said: My delights are to be with the children of men (Prov, viii. 31). It expresses, thirdly, the desolation of this Spouse who yearns after her Beloved, who is long a-coming. Like the turtle dove, she moans her loneliness, longing for the voice which will say to her: Come from Libanus, my Spouse! come, thou shalt be crowned:—thou hast wounded my heart (Cant, iv. 8, 9).
The Church also, during Advent, excepting on the Feasts of Saints, suppresses the Angelic Canticle, Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonӕ voluntatis; for this glorious Song was only sung at Bethlehem over the crib of the Divine Babe;—the tongue of the Angels is not loosened yet;—the Virgin has not yet brought forth her divine treasure;—it is not yet time to sing, it is not even true to say, Glory be to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men of good will!
Again, at the end of Mass, the Deacon does not dismiss the assembly of the faithful by the words: Ite, Missa est. He substitutes the ordinary greeting: Benedicamus Domino! as though the Church feared to interrupt the prayers of the people, which could scarce be too long during these days of expectation.
In the Night Office, the Holy Church also suspends, on those same days, the hymn of jubilation, Te Deum laudamus. It is in deep humility that she awaits the supreme blessing which is to come to her; and in the interval, she presumes only to ask, and entreat, and hope. But let the glorious hour come, when, in the midst of darkest night, the Sun of Justice will suddenly rise upon the world,—then indeed she will resume her hymn of thanksgiving, and all over the face of the earth, the silence of midnight will be broken by this shout of enthusiasm: “We praise thee, O God! we acknowledge thee to be our Lord! Thou, O Christ, art the King of glory, the everlasting Son of the Father! Thou, being to deliver man, didst not disdain the Virgin's womb!”
On the Ferial Days, the Rubrics of Advent prescribe that certain prayers should be said kneeling, at the end of each Canonical Hour, and that the Choir should also kneel during a considerable portion of the Mass. In this respect, the usages of Advent are precisely the same as those of Lent.
But there is one feature winch distinguishes Advent most markedly from Lent: the word of gladness, the joyful Alleluia, is not interrupted during Advent, except once or twice during the ferial office. It is sung in the Masses of the four Sundays, and vividly contrasts with the sombre colour of the Vestments. On one of these Sundays—the third—the prohibition of using the organ is removed, and we are gladdened by its grand notes, and rose-coloured Vestments may be used instead of the purple. These vestiges of joy, thus blended with the holy mournfulness of the Church, tell us, in a most expressive way, that though she unites with the ancient people of God in praying for the coming of the Messias, (thus paying the debt which the entire human race owes to the justice and mercy of God,) she does not forget that the Emmanuel is already come to her, that he is in her, and that even before she has opened her lips to ask him to save her, she has been already redeemed and predestined to an eternal union with him. This is the reason why the Alleluia accompanies even her sighs, and why she seems to be at once joyous and sad, waiting for the coming of that holy night which will be brighter to her than the most sunny of days, and on which her joy will expel all her sorrow.
Taken from: The Liturgical Year - Advent, Edition 1870.
(Apoc, xxii. 20)