ON THE SEASON OF ADVENT.
From the first institution of the great Festivals of the Church each of
them occupied a central position in a series of days; partly for the sake
of Christian discipline. Thus Christmas is preceded by the Sundays
and Season of Advent, and following by twelve days of continued Christian
joy which end with Epiphany.
Under its present name the season of Advent is not to be traced further
back than the seventh century; but Collects, Epistles, and Gospels for
five Sundays before the Nativity of our Lord, and for the Wednesdays and
Fridays also, are to be found in the ancient Sacramentaries, and in the
Comes of St. Jerome. These offer good evidence that the observance
of the season was introduced into the Church at the same time with the
observance of Christmas: yet there is not, properly speaking, any season
of Advent in the Eastern Church, which has always carefully preserved ancient
customs intact; though it observes a Lent before Christmas as well as before
Durandus (a laborious and painstaking writer, always to be respected,
though not to be implicitly relied upon) writes that St. Peter instituted
three whole weeks to be observed as a special season before Christmas,
and so much of the fourth as extended to the Vigil of Christmas, which
is not part of Advent. [Durand. vi. 2] This was probably a
very ancient opinion, but the earliest extant historical evidence respecting
Advent is that mentioned above, as contained in the Lectionary of St. Jerome.
Next come two homilies of Maximus, Bishop of Turin, A.D. 450, which are
headed De Adventu Domini. In the following century are two other
Sermons of Caesarius, Bishop of Arles [501-542] (formerly attributed to
St. Augustine, and printed among his works), and in these there are full
details respecting the season and its observance. In the latter part
of the same century St. Gregory of Tours writes that Perpetuus, one of
his predecessors, had ordered the observance of three days as fasts in
every week, from the Feast of St. Martin to that of Christmas; and this
direction was enforced on the Clergy of France by the Council of Macon,
held A.D. 581. In the Ambrosian and Mozarabic liturgies Advent Season
commences at the same time: and it has also been sometimes known by the
name Quadragesima Sancti Martini: from which it seems probable that
the Western Churches of Europe originally kept six Advent Sundays, as the
Eastern still keeps a forty days’ fast, beginning on the same day.
But the English Church, since the Conquest, at least, has observed four
only, although the title of the Sunday preceding the first seems to offer
an indication of a fifth in more ancient days.
The rule by which Advent is determined defines the first Sunday as that
which comes nearest, whether before or after, to St. Andrew’s Day; which
is equivalent to saying that it is the first Sunday after November 26th.
December 3rd is consequently the latest day on which it can occur.
In the Latin and English Churches the Christian year commences with
the First Sunday in Advent. Such, at least, has been the arrangement
of the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels for many centuries, although the
ancient Sacramentaries began the year with Christmas Day, and although
the Prayer Book (until the change of style in 1752) contained an express
“Note, that the Supputation of the year of our Lord in the Church of England
beginneth the Five and Twentieth day of March.” By either reckoning
it is intended to number the times and seasons of the Church by the Incarnation:
and while the computation from the Annunciation is more correct from a
theological and a chronological point of view, that from Advent and Christmas
fits in far better with the vivid system of the Church by which she represents
to us the life of our Lord year by year. Beginning the year with
the Annunciation, we should be reminded by the new birth of Nature of the
regeneration of Human Nature: beginning it with Advent and Christmas, we
have a more keen reminder of that humiliation of God the Son, by which
the new birth of the world was accomplished. And as we number our
years, not by the age of the world, nor by the time during which any earthly
sovereignty has lasted, but by the age of the Christian Church and the
time during which the Kingdom of Christ has been established upon earth,
calling each “the Year of our Lord,” or “the Year of Grace:” so we begin
every year with the season when grace first came by our Lord and King,
through His Advent in the humility of His Incarnation.
In very ancient times the season of Advent was observed as one of special
prayer and discipline. As already stated, the Council of Macon in
its ninth Canon directs the general observance by the Clergy of the Monday,
Wednesday, and Friday fast-days, of which traces are found at an earlier
period: and the Capitulars of Charlemagne also speak of a forty days’ fast
before Christmas. The strict Lenten observance of the season was
not, however, general. Amalarius, writing in the ninth century, speaks
of it as being kept in that way only by the religious, that is, by those
who had adopted an ascetic life in monasteries, or elsewhere: and the principle
generally carried out appears to have been that of multiplying solemn services,
and of adopting a greater reserve in the use of lawful indulgences.
Such an observance of the season still commends itself to us as one that
will form a fitting prefix to the joyous time of Christmas: and one that
will also be consistent with that contemplation of our Lord’s Second Advent
which it is impossible to dissociate from thoughts of His First.
In the system of the Church the Advent Season is to the Christmas Season
what St. John the Baptist was to the First, and the Christian ministry
is to the Second, Coming of our Lord.