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Commentary from 
Rivingtons, London, 1884
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 Easter. 

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.