Advent as the Little Lent
Step into an Anglican church this time of year and you will most likely find a profusion of purple—purple banners, purple Bible markers, purple vestments. More than just a color choice, purple is a symbol that marks the character or flavor of the season of Advent and ties this season to the much longer season of Lent, which is very often also purple. In fact, Advent is called the Little Lent in many Eastern Orthodox churches. Of course, in contemporary American Culture and acculturated American denominations, Advent has long been replaced by the pre-Christmas season, the season for Santa Claus and consumerism.
In postmodern America, however, Advent is making something of a comeback as Advent wreaths suddenly pop up in Churches, mostly as a new way to celebrate the Christmas season, as witnessed also by the postmodern use of red and green candles instead of purple and rose. But what is the understanding and meaning behind an Advent that is simply a new way to celebrate Christmas? The purple traditions help us to understand what Advent is intended to be.
So, what is Advent? Advent, which is Latin for “to come”, is a season of the Church year that anticipates the coming of Christ. There is a double theme for Advent. Christians celebrate the “first” Advent of Christ, when he came as a man for our salvation, and just as importantly, we long for and pray for the “second” Advent of Christ, when he shall come again to judge the world and to complete his victory. Since our focus is on the Advent of Christ, the season is spent as a time of preparation to receive Christ and to meet him face to face.
Therefore, Advent, though expectant and joyous, is also a penitential season wherein Christians are to examine their hearts and their lives; to check the condition of their souls in preparation both of celebrating the Nativity of our Lord Christ and of the coming judgment day of Christ’s return.
This penitential nature makes sense of calling Advent the “Little Lent.” Lent is 40 days long, Advent is anywhere from 22 to 28 days long. Thus, it is “littler” than Lent, but it is of a similar nature as a season. Fasting, penitence, increased spiritual devotions and works of charity are typical activities for Lent, but also for Advent. Lent is a preparation for celebrating the Resurrection, Advent a preparation for celebrating the incarnation and the second coming of our Lord.
Three Purple, One Rose—Traditions of Advent
As the Church works to reclaim Advent as a season of the Christian year, some traditions will need to be recovered and put to use. Below is a list of customs that exist in the Anglican tradition for the season of Advent that Churches and families can use as possible to establish traditions in homes and parishes.
Advent Lessons and Carols
We’ve all heard of Christmas Lessons and Carols. But did you know that, decades ago, St. John’s College, Cambridge, gave the first service of Advent Lessons and Carols for those students who would miss the Christmas service while home for the holidays? The Church hymnal has a wealth of wonderful Advent carols which, when added to our tradition, will enrich our theology and our lives.
The Advent Wreath
Have one at Church and use one at home! Light the candles during family prayer times, using the collect for the Day and for Advent, and talk about the marking of time and the coming into the world of the light of Christ incarnate. But for goodness’ sake, use three purple candles and one rose colored candle (not green and red!).
Play Advent Music Advent music is for Advent! Christmas music is for Christmas! Of course you can cheat a bit, but this practical tradition can make a big difference in our understanding of the season as music so often shapes our emotions and moods and is a big part of most people’s context. Then, of course, play Christmas music not only on Christmas Day, but all the way through Christmastide, thus reclaiming Christmas as a season too.
Wait for it Hold off on putting up your Christmas tree and Christmas lights. In times past, the tradition was to put up the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. (And, please do not take down the tree and the lights until Epiphany, January 6.) The traditions of a season help us to understand that season and keep the seasons effective. Of course, parties during Advent are somewhat unavoidable in our culture, but Christians could at least hold off throwing their own parties until the party season of December 25 through January 6. Remember, part of Advent’s character is about penitence and fasting—big feasts, candies, pies and fudge all seem to be just a little out of place in Advent.
Exercise your Faith Seek to use, during Advent, the spiritual disciplines God has given us.
1. Pray. Make your prayer life stronger, using resources like the daily office and family prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, and read the lectionary readings found therein, particularly with the Advent themes in mind.
2. Seek. Ask a pastor or spiritual advisor for some resources, perhaps some devotional reading. Seek out spiritual counsel and advice from a priest or your spiritual director.
3. Fast. Seek to practice the discipline of fasting. If you’re new to it, pick one day a week perhaps, to fast during the day, breaking your fast in the evening, preferably with Christian brothers and sisters and preferably in connection with corporate prayer and worship.
4. Confess. Consider making an appointment with your priest to participate in private confession and Absolution. This healthy discipline will assist us in examining our hearts and in setting us free from sin, so that we are prepared to meet our Judge.
5. Work. Choose a godly, charitable activity that you have not normally practiced, and do it as a good work done unto the Lord. Show forth the love of Christ by your actions in some new and challenging way, developing your godly character along the way.