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Musical Musings: Advent

Advent Then and Now

by Gary D. Penkala

According to Pierre Jounel in Volume IV (The Liturgy and Time) of the excellent collection The Church at Prayer, the Greek word Epiphaneia, sometimes literally translated as "manifestation," can also be translated by the Latin Adventus ("coming"), which has pagan roots. Unlike the festivities surrounding the Lord's Resurrection [from early on every Sunday was seen as a celebration of this miracle], the events associated with the Incarnation are more vague in their history and are often linked to a pagan feast or ceremony, in an effort to "Christianize" it.

In its cultic use Adventus signified the annual coming of divinities into their temples in order to visit their devotees: the god or goddess, whose statue was offered for veneration, was thought to dwell in the midst of the devotees as long as the ceremony lasted. The etiquette of the imperial court used the same term for the first official visit of an important personage at the time of his accession or entrance upon his office. In Christian writings of the early centuries and especially in the Vulgate, Adventus became the classical term for the coming of Christ among us: both his coming in the flesh, which inaugurated the messianic age, and his coming in glory, which will crown the work of redemption at the end of time. Adventus, Natale, and Epiphania thus express the same basic reality.

The eventual liturgical separation of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany in the Roman Rite is a story for history to relate.

The origins of a specific time set apart, prior to the celebrations of the feasts of Christmas and Epiphany, lie in the regions of Gaul and Spain in the fourth and fifth centuries. Rome was not to accept this "pre-Christmas" fast until almost one hundred years later. The time leading up to Christmas/Epiphany was originally seen as non-liturgical; it was a period of asceticism, prayer and fasting. It was likely used as preparation for baptisms administered on Epiphany when this feast was closely tied with the event of the Baptism of the Lord. A logical parallel can easily be seen with the current season of Lent serving as an intense spiritual preparation for the catechumens who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil. The Ember Days of December, celebrated on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after the feast of Saint Lucy (Dec 13), were obvious extensions of this practice of fasting and prayer. These ember days, lasting into the middle of the 20th century, were characterized by fasting on Wednesday and Friday, followed by an extended evening vigil on Saturday. During this vigil, it was the Roman custom for the pope to ordain priests, a practice that also continued for many centuries, even within local diocesan churches.

Whereas the ascetical considerations of this preparatory time were paramount outside of Rome, when the season became common in that city at the latter half of the sixth century it had liturgical pinnings. Beautiful prayers existed for this six-week (then four-week) period, stemming from the Gelasian Sacramentary, the Gregorian Sacramentary, and the lectionary of Alcuin. The first liturgical formularies focused almost exclusively on the Lord's Second Coming, the Parousia, so that, in a sense, this "eschatological" season could be celebrated quite apart from the Christmas event.

The best symbol of Advent as celebrated in this perspective is the Etimasia or empty throne of the Pantocrator, which is so often shown in the mosaics of Rome and Ravenna. From that point on the old pagan term Adventus was understood in the biblical and eschatological sense of "Parousia." [P. Jounel, The Liturgy and Time]

 Back to Advent Index

Part II: Preparing for Christmas

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