The first day of the Advent this year was on Sunday, Nov. 27, marking the beginning of the New Year for Christians, but this seasonal observance is unfamiliar to some Christians.
Advent always begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve. However not every Christian denomination highlights this season or follows the church calendar, particularly evangelicals that do not worship liturgically.
Here are three things you should know about the month-long season leading up to Christmas Day.
1. Advent is a season of penitence
During Advent, Christians remember the first coming of the Lord, who was born in Bethlehem, in anticipation to the second coming of Jesus who will return in Jerusalem. The Latin word Adventus means "coming" and is a translation of the Greek work parousia, which in the New Testament often refers to Christ's second coming.
Although it remains unclear when the first celebration of Advent took place in church history, in The Synod of Saragossa in 380 AD it is declared that Christians ought to use the week prior to Christmas to be present in church meetings and to prepare spiritually for Christmas.
In 490 AD, Saint Gregory of Tours advised monks to "observe fasting everyday during the month of December, up to Christmas day" (Canon 17, Council of Tours). Pope Gregory the Great and Pope Gregory VII in the Council of Tours (563 AD) and the Council of Mâcon (581 AD) respectively, "helped solidify Advent as a liturgical celebration for the Christian year," according to Seedbed of Asbury Seminary.
2. Lighting candles in an Advent wreath
An advent wreath contains four candles, one for each of the weeks before Christmas. While it likely has its roots in northern European Yule traditions, it was Christianized in the 16th century in Germany. The contemporary practice of lighting candles is credited to German theologian-pastor Johann Hinrich Wichern in the mid 1800s.
Three candles are purple and one is rose-colored. According to the Catholic Education Resource Center, "[t]he purple candles in particular symbolize the prayer, penance, and preparatory sacrifices and goods works undertaken at this time. The rose candle is lit on the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, when the priest also wears rose vestments at Mass; Gaudete Sunday is the Sunday of rejoicing, because the faithful have arrived at the midpoint of Advent, when their preparation is now half over and they are close to Christmas."
3. Advent is a microcosm of the Old Testament
Among biblical scholars, the debate continues as to what the common, central themes are in the Old Testament and what constitutes its core theological message. This is no doubt challenging inasmuch as the Old Testament contains history, books of wisdom, prophecies, legal documents, and Hebrew poetry. Yet according to John Oswalt, distinguished professor of Old Testament at Asbury Seminary, what unites all of these ancient writings is the great story of a God who does not give up on His people despite their repeated failings.
In a video posted online titled "Is Advent In The Bible?" Oswalt noted that many times the Israelites sinned, they were punished, and He would ultimately bring them out of captivity. Even so, the whole of the Old Testament indisputably points to the coming of Jesus.
"The Old Testament is tragedy but is also a book of endless, glorious hope. He is coming," Oswalt said. For a fuller explanation, watch the video below: