Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: May you help me on the issue of Advent season, since we are approaching it? What is its formation and its theology? — D.K., Harare, Zimbabwe
A: This is a vast question and it is not easy to respond briefly. However, we will attempt to give at least some basic ideas.
Our present system of organizing the liturgical cycle begins with Advent. This is perfectly logical as everything in the Church begins with the coming of Christ.
However, the year was not always ordered in this way and is not so organized in all liturgical families. The earliest traces of a liturgical cycle followed Jewish customs and began the year with Easter, whose date still determines many other feasts.
This was also in harmony with the beginning of the civil year which at that time began, not in January, but in March. According to some Christian traditions the spring equinox, which fell on March 25, was the first day of creation, the day of the Incarnation, and that of the Crucifixion. As a witness to this tradition we have the oldest known lectionary, that of the palimpsest of Wolfenbüttel (composed before 452), which has a cycle of readings that begins on Easter and finishes on Holy Saturday the following year.
As the celebration of the feast of Christmas became more widespread, along with the fact that some churches transferred the celebration of the Annunciation to before Christmas so as to remove it from Lent, the idea of beginning the liturgical year around this time gradually seeped in. This is reflected in the liturgical books of the sixth and seventh century which begin with Christmas. A century or two later, when Advent is conceived as a preparation for Christmas, we find the books beginning with the first Sunday of Advent, and this use is common after the ninth century.
It would appear that the liturgical celebration of Advent originated in southern France and Spain, at times with a marked penitential character. In Rome we find the first traces of this liturgical celebration in the sixth century sometimes with five or six Sundays. The four-Sunday Advent might have been established by Pope Gregory the Great after the year 546, although the longer Advent is still found in some places up until the 11th century and still exists in the Ambrosian rite of Milan.
Under the influence of Spanish and French liturgical practice the Roman Advent began to slowly take on a penitential character with fasting, the use of violet vestments, the omission of the Te Deum and the Gloria, the silencing of the organ and the removal of flowers. The penitential character, however, did not enter into the liturgical texts of Mass and Divine Office which generally express the desire to receive the Lord who comes.
From a historical point of view the prayers used during Advent are taken from the ancient manuscripts known as the Scroll of Ravenna (fifth to sixth centuries) and the Gelasian sacramentary (seventh century). Their constant theme is the coming of Christ, both in the incarnation (first coming) and at the end of time (second coming). They mention the necessary purification needed to worthily receive him, but with no trace of fear or sadness.
The current reforms of the calendar and missal, while retaining some of these elements as required for the spiritual preparation for Christmas, have toned down somewhat the penitential aspect, permitting a moderate use of flowers and a wider use of the organ.
Thus the General Instruction of the Roman Missal 305 says:
“During Advent the floral decoration of the altar should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this season, without expressing prematurely the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord.”
And GIRM 313:
“In Advent the organ and other musical instruments should be used with a moderation that is consistent with the season’s character and does not anticipate the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord.”
Therefore although Advent is no longer to be considered as a penitential season, the retention of some of the earlier elements such as violet vestments and the suppression of the Gloria help to emphasize the contrast the period of preparation with the festive joy of Christmas.
With respect to the spirituality of Advent the general norms for the liturgical calendar state:
“39. Advent has a twofold character: as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ’s first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation.
“40. Advent begins with evening prayer I of the Sunday falling on or closest to 30 November and ends before evening prayer I of Christmas.
“41. The Sundays of this season are named the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Sundays of Advent.
“The weekdays from 17 December to 24 December inclusive serve to prepare more directly for the Lord’s birth.”
The commentary that accompanied the introduction to the general norms of the calendar stated:
“The liturgical texts of Advent display a unity demonstrated by the almost daily reading of the prophet Isaiah. Nevertheless, two parts of Advent can be clearly distinguished, each with its own significance, as the new prefaces clearly illustrate. From the first Sunday of Advent until December 16 the liturgy expresses the eschatological character of Advent and urges us to look for the second coming of Christ. From December 17-24, the daily propers of the Mass and Office prepare more directly for the celebration of Christmas.”
After the Second Vatican Council the new lectionary for the Advent season greater increased the number of readings. The compilers of the new lectionary made an exhaustive study of all the lectionaries of the Western Church covering a period of 1,500 years and selected all that was best and most traditional. The result is some 75 readings in all. The first two Sundays announce the coming of the Lord in judgment, the third expresses the joy of a coming already very near, the fourth and last “appears as a Sunday of the fathers of the Old Testament and the Blessed Virgin Mary, in anticipation of the birth of Christ.” The weekday readings follow the theology expressed in the preceding Sunday.
Whereas the extraordinary-form missal only had proper prayers for Sunday and December Ember days, the present Roman Missal has a proper collect for each day of Advent, a wider selection of the other Mass prayers and two proper seasonal prefaces where none existed before.
Finally, another element that is characteristic of this season are the wonderful O Antiphons, attributed by some authors to Gregory the Great although introduced into the liturgy at a later date. They are used in the Liturgy of the Hours and in the lectionary in the days from December 17 through 24 and proclaim the coming of Christ to the nations.
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Readers may send questions to email@example.com. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.