The Advent Liturgy
The entire ecclesiastical and liturgical year—with all of its solemnity, all of its festal seasons and feasts, all of its penitential times and stirring vigils—has as its threshold, imbued with the nobility and elegance characteristic of the Roman Rite, the poignant season of Advent.
The Commencement of the Liturgical Year
The Missal and the Breviary open their annual cycle with the First Sunday of Advent, which is especially fitting, because with the advent of Christ, everything in the Church has its new beginning. In earlier centuries, though, the year opened in the spring, both ecclesiastically and civilly. The first month of the civil year was March, the time of the vernal equinox, which was then reckoned as being March 25. It is not so much the solar cycle that gave the date importance in the Church, but more so the fact that the equinoctial date coincides with the principal stages of the history of creation and redemption. March 25 is identified historically with the creation of the world, the Incarnation of the Son, and His crucifixion on the Cross.
In the works of Tertullian, St. Ambrose, and others there is still reference to the Church year beginning near Easter. But in the sixth to eighth centuries the shift was made to precede Christmas. One motivation was the transfer of the feast of the Annunciation into Advent in some places due to the rigors of Lent (only a shadow of this transfer remains, as will be seen), so the liturgical year’s incipit, long since tied to the Incarnation of the Son, was also transferred to precede Christmas. The liturgical books from the sixth to eighth centuries open with the Vigil of the Nativity, such as the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries, as do the Comes of St. Victor of Capua (a cómes being a listing of Epistles and Gospels to be sung at Mass), the Lectionary of Luxeuil, the Missale Gothicum, and the Evangeliarium of Würzburg. Some liturgical books from the eighth to tenth centuries place the commencement of the Church year at the beginning of Advent, and the practice became uniform by the end of the tenth century.
The Formation of Advent
The term “Advent” refers to the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ at his Nativity, of course, but there is a second meaning which is highlighted quite clearly in the sacred liturgy, that being the second coming of Christ. In the earliest centuries of the Church, and before Advent began to “crystallize” as a liturgical season of its own, the primary emphasis at the end of one year and the beginning of the next was on the spiritual preparation for the second coming and Last Judgment. This is clearly seen in the texts found at the end of the Sundays after Pentecost and those inaugurating Advent.
Advent experienced a retrograde development from the feast of its destination. Initially Christmas was prepared for with a vigil, like the other great feasts of the liturgical year, and the vigil still remains. In the days and weeks before the vigil, a time of liturgical and spiritual preparation began to take shape which led to the full formation of Advent. In the East, a preparation was initially made with the introduction of two commemoration-Masses in the weeks immediately preceding the vigil of Christmas, one of Our Lady, considering her divine maternity, and the other of St. John the Baptist, the precursor of the Messias. In Spain and Gaul, there begin to be references in the fifth century to a three-week preparatory liturgical season at this time of the year, although in those regions the preparation was oriented more to Epiphany than to Christmas due to their use of solemnly conferring baptisms on that date. (This history is perhaps the reason why Epiphany is celebrated with much greater ceremony and sentiment in those cultures Christianized by Spain, even to this day.)
In the sixth century, Gallican references begin to appear regarding this period being extended all the way back to the feast of St. Martin of Tours on November 11, thus forming a close parallel to Lent, and even being called “St. Martin’s Lent.” That extension became the custom in the Gallican and Ambrosian liturgies, as well as in Spain and England at least by the time of St. Cuthbert (+687), and the Ambrosian liturgy still maintains six weeks of Advent.
Advent in the Roman Rite
While the observance of Epiphany as a baptismal day was a motivating factor for the extension of Advent in those places marked by the Gallican use, such was not the case at Rome. There, the preparation of December would lead only to Christmas, not to Epiphany, and its development was later. At the time of St. Leo the Great (+461) there is no reference to a developed Advent season, and St. Leo himself remains silent on the topic. Many liturgical scholars place the development of Advent in Rome, and thus in the Roman Rite, in the sixth century. It is a natural consequence of the Christological controversies which required so much of the Church’s attention in that era. Therefore, as often occurs in the wake of crises, a renewed focus and expression were given to the liturgical celebration of the mysteries impugned. The feasts of the Incarnation of the Divine Word and of the Nativity of the Savior thus took even more profound significance and the preparatory period before Christmas began to quickly develop.
Sixth century references point to the establishment of a six-week Advent in Rome as well, including the vacant Sunday (Dominica vacat) which followed Ember Saturday. It was St. Gregory the Great at the dawn of the seventh century who drew upon the custom being used in Capua at that time in order to restructure Advent into the four Sundays presently used. As the Dominica vacat had no Mass formulary of its own, there were in consequence five texts that had been composed for the Sunday Masses of Advent up to that time. St. Gregory assigned the first of them to the Last Sunday after Pentecost, and the remaining four of them to the four Sundays of Advent. The Mass formulary for the Last Sunday after Pentecost bears such a resemblance in tone and theme to the Mass of the First Sunday of Advent for this reason.
Penitential Practice in Advent
For a period of time, Advent was also marked by fast and abstinence. St. Gregory of Tours (+594) claimed that his fifth-century predecessor Perpetuus instituted the fast there: “He instituted the fast, which is ordered thus… From the deposition of Saint Martin until the Nativity of Our Lord, fasting is thrice per week.” The Council of Tours in 597 and the first Council of Maçon in 581 codified further that these days would be held uniformly as the Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of those weeks. However, these rigors never passed into the Roman Rite in any uniform way. Ratherius of Verona (+974) refers to abstinence at his time, while Pope Innocent III (+1216) refers also to the fast. Some centuries later, in 1370, Pope Urban V imposed only a general abstinence on his clergy. Unlike that of Lent, the fast and abstinence practiced in Advent was never uniformly practiced and was never fully harmonized with the liturgy. That is to say, the texts of Lent are explicitly penitential and make copious references to the Lenten fast, but that is a theme which was never adopted by the Advent liturgy. Before long these Lenten rigors began to fade out of Advent, leaving the season with its particular quietly subdued character and a simple charm all of its own.
Part of the penance, albeit a “joyful penance,” characteristic of Advent is seen in the liturgy by way of the violet vestments used, the suppression of the Gloria in excelsis in the Mass and the Te Deum in the Office, the silence of the organ, and the altars no longer adorned with floral décor. In most places the standing reliquaries are removed as well, and the golden altarware yields to silver. In some places in centuries past, the holy images were covered as in Lent, and black vestments were even used. These uses did not correspond to the primitive character of Advent in the Roman Rite, however, and soon faded out. The Mass texts can be seen to emphasize a holy and intense longing for the coming of the Redeemer, both at the end of time and at His Nativity in time (as the sacred liturgy makes this mystery present to us), and the entreaty that He may deign to assist us in making our spiritual preparation, through purification from sin, for His entrance. Thus the liturgical simplicity of Advent also bears its marks of joy, which can be seen especially in the presence of the Alleluia in the Mass, and even of its increased use in the antiphons of the Divine Office.
Highlights of the Advent Liturgy
The lessons for the whole Advent season are taken from the prophet Isaias, who “speaks more openly about the advent [of the Messias] than any other prophet,” as Durandus observes. The bulk of the antiphons and responsories for the season are taken from the same prophetic source. The First Sunday of Advent, also known as Dominica ad te levavi from its Introit, “To Thee have I lifted up my soul, O my God…,” sets the tone for the whole season, as the Church mystically raises up her eyes to the horizon as if to spot her Divine Bridegroom coming hither. The first Matins responsory of Advent is a glimpse into the liturgical past, as it maintains an ancient form with four parts: “I look from afar, and behold I see the Power of God, coming like as a cloud to cover the land with the hosts of his People: * Go ye out to meet Him and say: * Tell us if Thou art He, * That shalt reign over God’s people Israel.”
Among other salient features, there is the presence of Gaudete Sunday near mid-Advent, which took its cue from Laetare Sunday in Lent. Rose-colored vestments, in reality a mitigation of violet, are worn, the organ plays, the flowers reappear. The Wednesday Mass of Gaudete week, besides being the Ember Wednesday, is the day on which the Annunciation is commemorated in a way (hearkening back to the transfer of the feast to Advent in some places in centuries past). The Introit is Rorate coeli, and the Gospel is that of the Annunciation. From December 17 onward, Advent preparation becomes more intense, and the Greater Antiphons appear, beautifully adorning the Vespers hour with a series which spells out, in reverse, ero cras (tomorrow I shall be). They form a glorious panegyric to the coming King of Kings: O Wisdom, O Adonai, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dawn of the East, O King, O Emmanuel!
Advent prepares us for the coming of the Holy Redeemer not only at the end of time, but for the liturgical re-living of the mystery of his Nativity longed for and awaited by every faithful soul since the great Fall. As the Martyrology’s proclamation of Christmas Eve makes so clear, it is an advent mercifully prepared over time by the hand of God, and of which we are the privileged recipients:
“In the 5,199th year from the creation of the world, when in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, in the 2,959th year from the flood, in the 2,015th year from the birth of Abraham, in the 1,510th year from the going forth of the people of Israel out of Egypt under Moses, in the 1,032th year from the anointing of David as King, in the 65th week according to the prophecy of Daniel, in the 194th Olympiad, in the 752nd from the foundation of the city of Rome, in the 42nd year of the reign of the Emperor Octavian Augustus, in the 6th age of the world, while the whole earth was at peace, Jesus Christ, Himself Eternal God and Son of the Eternal Father, being pleased to hallow the world by His most gracious coming, having been conceived of the Holy Ghost, and when nine months were passed after His conception, was born of the Virgin Mary at Bethlehem of Juda, made Man.”