FROM THE PASTOR’S DESK:
The History Behind Advent and Christmas
By the time our December Newsletter is published we will have begun the 2022 Season of Advent and be in full-swing preparing for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The history of Advent and Christmas is fascinating as are their place within Methodism.
Christmas, the holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, is celebrated by a majority of Christians on December 25 in the Gregorian calendar. But early Christians did not celebrate his birth, and no one knows on which date Jesus was actually born (some scholars believe that the actual date was in the early spring, placing it closer to Easter, the holiday commemorating his Resurrection).
The origins of the holiday and its December date lie in the ancient Greco-Roman world, as commemorations probably began sometime in the 2nd century. There are at least three possible origins for the December date. The Roman Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus dated Jesus’ conception to March 25 (the same date upon which he held that the world was created), which, after nine months in his mother’s womb, would result in a December 25 birth.
In the 3rd century, the Roman Empire, which at the time had not adopted Christianity, celebrated the rebirth of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus) on December 25th. This holiday not only marked the return of longer days after the winter solstice but also followed the popular Roman festival called the Saturnalia (during which people feasted and exchanged gifts). It was also the birthday of the Indo-European deity Mithra, a god of light and loyalty whose cult was at the time growing popular among Roman soldiers.
The church in Rome began formally celebrating Christmas on December 25 in 336, during the reign of the emperor Constantine. As Constantine had made Christianity the effective religion of the empire, some have speculated that choosing this date had the political motive of weakening the established pagan celebrations. The date was not widely accepted in the Eastern Empire, where January 6 had been favored, for another half-century, and Christmas did not become a major Christian festival until the 9th century. (https://www.britannica.com/story/why-is-christmas-in-december, accessed November 1, 2022).
Advent means “coming” or “arrival.” Advent was developed as a season of the church year in the late fourth century, late 300s.
Advent was widely practiced across Christian churches worldwide by the sixth century. The church developed Advent primarily to provide an alternative time for the final preparation of candidates for baptism. The normal three-year preparation period included a final forty days of intense preparation during Lent. Similar to Lent, Advent developed as a penitential season of varying lengths. By the eighth century, Advent was generally observed for six weeks in the East (as it is to this day) and seven in the West. By the 12th century, it became shortened in the West to four weeks.
Methodism and Advent: Advent was part of the practice of the Church of England when John Wesley was a priest. When he revised the liturgical calendar for use by American Methodists in 1784, he kept Advent and its four Sundays. So, Advent was part of Methodist ritual from the beginning. However, the 1792 General Conference dramatically simplified the ritual, removing nearly all of the church calendar and the associated readings for each Sunday. As a result, Advent became a “lost practice” among most American Methodists for well over a century. While a few hymns related to Advent were retained, it wasn’t until 1965 that specific ritual resources for Advent were included in The Book of Worship of The Methodist Church.
By the time Advent was restored to Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren practice in the mid-20th century, there were other significant developments in the cultural practices of Christmas that impacted Advent in our congregations. The Christmas season as a cultural practice was no longer the 12 days beginning with Christmas Eve. Instead, it had become the nearly 30 days from American Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve. This meant that even though the 1965 Book of Worship included readings and prayers focused on the second coming of Christ, many congregations expected Advent to conform to the cultural Christmas focus on the birth of Jesus. By 1992, United Methodist liturgy and an expanded selection of Advent-specific hymns all helped United Methodists understand and reclaim the original focus of Advent on the second coming of Christ.
In the past I have been reluctant to sing Christmas Carols during the four weeks of Advent. But I have come to understand that a season of preparation should include the Carols, as well as the songs of Advent, as all these songs enhance our preparation. Reminding us, once again, that Jesus came to bring light and hope into a dark world. I don’t know about you but I think we can all do with some light and hope in our world right now, so let’s prepare for the singing of some our favorite Carols during the next few weeks following into Christmastide.
I would also invite you to bring a ‘bell’ to the worship service on Sunday, December 25th, as we will ring out the old year and begin the new year with the song, Angels We Have Heard on High, ringing our bells during the chorus.
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Let us continue to BE THE CHURCH for one another, our neighbors, our community, and the world that God so loves.