What is Advent and When Does It Start This Year?

REUTERS/Nayef HashlamounA child touches a statue of Baby Jesus in the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem December 25, 2006.

While many are familiar with the word Advent, not so many people, even regular churchgoers, don't really know what the meaning of the word is.

Many people associate the word Advent with Christmas, but don't really know that the word literally means "coming" and was derived from the Latin word "Adventus." Originally, Advent had very little connection to Christmas as it was a 40-day period of fasting and contemplation for new Christians as they prepared themselves for baptism in January. However, when the Roman Catholic church moved the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ to December, Advent has been closely associated with Christmas.

Although the official start of the Advent season varies every year, it always starts on the first of the four Sundays that lead to Christmas. It is during this time when the Church commemorates the anticipation of the Jews then as they waited for the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

The Church observes the Advent by focusing on the different aspect of the story. On the first Sunday of the Advent, it tells of God's people during the Biblical times as they were looking forward to the future with hope. The second Sunday, on the other hand, highlights the prophets who foretold the arrival of Christ.

On the third Sunday, the focus is on John the Baptist, who, apart from preaching in the desert, is most known for baptizing Jesus. And, finally, on the fourth Sunday of the Advent, the Church preaches about Mary, the mother of Jesus.

While there are other variations on the focus of the fourth Sunday of Advent, all lead to the lighting of the central candle, which is part of the four candles that are lit every Sunday of the Advent. On Christmas morning, though, many churches add another candle, which symbolizes Jesus Christ, who is referred to as the Light of the World.

Apart from candles, wreaths are also an integral part of the observance of the Advent as it is inside it where the Advent candles are placed. As wreaths are circular in shape, they symbolize God's complete and unending love and eternal life through a person's faith in Jesus Christ.

This year's advent begins on December 3 and ends on Dec. 24.