This Sunday marks the beginning of Advent — a season we may need more than ever during these perilous months of Covid-19, as we await a vaccine, a new government, a new economy, and a journey to a new year.

Only when we joined the Episcopal Church did we learn of this season of “expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration” of the birth of the Christ Child. Wikipedia and other sources cite the word Advent as meaning “coming,” from the Latin adventus, a translation of the Greek parousia, the Second Coming of Christ. Thus, Advent implies three comings: “in the flesh in Bethlehem, daily in our hearts, and in glory at the end of time.”

Advent encompasses the four Sundays before Christmas, commemorated in the Catholic, Moravian, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches. Certain rituals and practices reinforce Advent — the keeping of an Advent calendar, lighting the candles in an Advent wreath, praying a daily devotional, erecting a Chrismon tree, and other ways. In our church, we delay the singing of Christmas carols and the erecting of the tree in the church, focusing instead on the anticipation, the waiting other hymns evoke with lyrics like “Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free” and “Lo, he comes with clouds descending.” The Episcopal Hymnal has 24 hymns in its Advent section, all focused on the coming of Christ.

Scholars speculate that Advent may have been celebrated as early as the fifth century when monks were ordered to fast daily throughout December until Christmas. Then a bishop dictated that the fasting period (three days a week) begin in November with the feast of St. Martin and last until Christmas, leading Advent to be called “the Lent of St. Martin.” By the 13th century, fasting had disappeared as a component of Advent though Pope Urban V urged abstinence.

Colors of AdventHangings in the church and vestments of the priest or preacher during Advent may be purple or blue, the latter representing hope. The use of blue may be traced to the Church of Sweden (Lutheran) and the medieval Sarum Rite in England. The Sarum Rite, also called the Salisbury Rite, meant a pattern of worship dating from the 13th century. Old Sarum, the site of the earliest settlement of Salisbury, appears in the historical records in England. “Sarum blue” is another term for the sign of hope, whereas some argue that purple suggests solemnity and somberness. On the Third Sunday of Advent, some churches may switch to rose or pink, signs of joy.

Local traditions

In addition to the Advent wreath and calendar, some sections of the world observe other traditions. In Northern England, a custom in the past involved two poor women who each carried dolls dressed as Christ and the Virgin Mary. The women expected a half-penny from all who saw the dolls, “Advent images”; bad luck came to those whom the women didn’t visit before Christmas Eve at the latest.

In Italy, some worshippers celebrate Advent by having bagpipers enter Rome and play before the shrine of Mary, recalling the tradition of the shepherds playing their pipes when they came to Bethlehem to pay homage to the Infant. In Germany in 2011, worshippers created an Advent labyrinth of 2,500 tealights for the Third Sunday of Advent.

The Advent readingsThe First Sunday looks forward to the Second Coming of Christ with a reading from Isaiah 9: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” A second reading remembers the prophets who spoke of the child to come, the liberator of the people. Then the first purple candle is lit.

On the Second Sunday, the theme recalls John the Baptist who “prepared the way of the Lord.” The Third Sunday gospels address John again and the joy expected with the coming of the Savior. The theme of the Fourth Sunday readings relates the events leading to the birth of Jesus. A fifth candle, the Christ candle, may be lit during the Christmas Eve service.

The wreathIn the 16th century, German Lutherans began the tradition of an Advent wreath, but the modern wreath originated with Johann Hinrich Wichern, a Protestant minister and urban missionary in Germany. He constructed a ring of wood that had 19 small red candles and four large white candles in hopes that he could allay the impatience for Christmas for the children he taught. Every morning a child lit a small candle and every Sunday lit a large one. Only the four or five candles are used in today’s Advent wreath, made with fir tree branches, pine cones, holly, laurel, or mistletoe.

Symbolism abounds in the wreath: lying horizontally, it resembles a crown of victory; its circular form mimics the sun and the promise of its return each year; four means the four weeks of Advent, the four seasons, and the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance); the evergreens, because they do not lose their leaves, represent the eternity of God; the flames represent the Christmas light approaching, bringing hope and peace; the holly foretells the crown of thorns on Christ’s head.

Some interpretations of the candles see them as representing the stages of salvation — the symbol of forgiveness granted to Adam and Eve, the faith of Abraham and belief in a Promised Land, the joy of David and his covenant with God, and the teachings of the prophets who predict a reign of justice and peace. Others see the candles as symbols of the stages of human history: creation, the Incarnation, the redemption of sins, and the Last Judgment.

Whatever your own Christmas traditions, Advent asks us to slow down, to think, to meditate upon this birth that changed time and the world.

Liz Meador is a retired English instructor from Wayne Community College and an adjunct at North Carolina Wesleyan College.