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The Season of Advent: Four Sundays Before Christmas

Updated on December 28, 2012

What Is It?

Many of us remember having an Advent calendar in our homes when we were children. The kind that had little doors that you could pop open to see a scene or scripture. Others of us had an Advent candle wreath, with candles we would light to mark the Sundays leading up to Christmas. These traditions were meant to help us prepare for Christmas, the celebration of Christ's birth. They are mostly lost now, however, and have been replaced by a different season of preparation...the shopping season. Now, instead of counting down the days to the Nativity, we are more likely to be panicked because we only have x number of shopping days left. Many now have never heard of Advent or, if they have, they couldn't say what it is.

History of Advent

Advent, first of all, is a period of time in the Christian church year. There is no mention of it in the Bible, however, as it was a tradition begun in the late 4th century when Christianity became the state religion of Rome under Emperor Constantine. As with many Christian celebrations Advent has a prior pagan significance. The often hedonistic celebration of the winter solstice, called Saturnalia after the agricultural god Saturnus, was already widely observed in ancient Rome. As there was no record of the actual date of birth of Jesus of Nazareth, it made sense to place Advent and Christmas at this time of the year to co-opt a pagan holiday and to make use of the imagery of Christ as light in the midst of darkness.

The Festival of Saturnalia
The Festival of Saturnalia

The Days of Advent

Many people believe that Advent starts four weeks before Christmas day, but this is not entirely accurate. Advent encompasses the four Sundays before Christmas, and begins on the Sunday between November 27th and December 3rd, making it sometimes shorter than four weeks and sometimes longer. While many people engage in spiritual practices each day of the Advent season, most observance is marked by the four Sundays. Each Sunday has a theme. The first Sunday's theme is Hope. The other three Sundays' themes are Peace, Joy, and Love, respectely.

Advent Spiritual Practice

Devoted Christians will often observe the season of Advent by adopting an additional spiritual practice. This can be many different things, but daily scripture reading of the lectionary is most common. The Revised Common Lectionary provides scriptures that help one prepare for the coming of Christ. This schedule of readings is available online or in print. The Presbyterian Church USA website makes the daily lectionary easily accessible. The link is provided below.

A Reading from the Advent Lectionary

Isaiah 2:1-4

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:

"In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house

shall be established as the highest of the mountains,

and shall be raised above the hills;

all the nations shall stream to it.

Many peoples shall come and say,

'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;

that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.'

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,

and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations,

and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more."


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      Rev Anne Bailey Campbell 2 years ago from Upstate, New York

      I apologize for the delayed response. Early Christians believed that preparation for holy days should be 40 days. The number 40 is used often in the Christian Bible. The flood in Genesis lasted 40 days and 40 nights. Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days and nights prior to beginning his ministry. When the church decided such things, they set the period of Lent, in preparation for Easter, to 40 days, and sought to give a similar period for Advent, which would include 4 Sundays, but not Christmas Day itself if it was a Sunday.

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      Omar Ahmed 3 years ago

      what is the significance of four sundays before christmas??