The History of the Advent Season

Some Christian churches observe a near-month-long preparation for Christmas known as the Advent season, but its origins are not Bible-based and not well understood. Advent traces back to the Middle Ages when some Christians thought Jesus’s return was imminent, explains Rev. Howard Bess.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

We are in the middle of Advent season though few Christians can explain what it is all about. Some may know that it is a time of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Christ of the Faith. Seasonal music abounds and there is a lot of candle lighting.

But an in-depth understanding of Advent escapes most believers. The meaning of the season gets swallowed up by Santa Claus and the commercialization of Christmas.

An Advent wreath with candles lit on the first Sunday of the Advent season. (Photo credit: Micha L. Rieser)

Growing up as a Baptist in a small Midwestern town, I never heard anything about Advent season. It was never mentioned at the First Baptist Church, and there were not many Catholics or Lutherans around my home town. I vaguely knew that some Christian churches had ceremonies around Christmas time that went beyond singing songs and hearing a sermon.

But I did not receive my first exposure to the Christian liturgical year until I was attending a Methodist seminary, where I learned that most Christian churches divide the year into four seasons, and that the first season was called Advent. It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Thus began my journey to understand and appreciate Advent.

A season called Advent is not mentioned in the Bible. In fact, Advent does not appear in church history until the 8th Century when it surfaced as a response to a massive wave of anticipation of the return of Jesus Christ to establish a righteous kingdom on earth. People started feverishly to prepare themselves to greet the Messiah King who would rule the world. But Jesus did not return to earth in the 8th Century.

In reading church history, Christians have shown themselves to have an addiction to the return of Jesus. Countless times over my years of being pastor, I have been approached by a parishioner with a message for me: Jesus is returning. Usually the parishioner had a date certain. Yet, each time, for some reason, Jesus did not return.

It is not easy for a pastor to explain to faithful members of the congregation that Jesus is not coming back on their time schedule. But the problem persists. People keep trying to read Bible mythology as history. People were in error in the 8th Century and have been in error every century since.

Reading Bible mythology as history and turning it into predictions is folly. Write this down in bold type: Jesus is not returning to earth to set up a righteous kingdom. Does this erase Advent as a valid tool in the cultivating of the spiritual life? I think not!

The word advent comes to us from the Latin word adventus, the Latin translation of the Greek word parousia, which means coming. A god who comes to his creation is a very common theme that runs throughout the Bible. The typical encounter between a human being and God that is described in the Bible does not happen when a human being goes looking for God. Rather these human/divine encounters take place when God comes looking for a human being who will serve him.

In the Bible material, God went looking for Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, and Paul. Disciples did not come looking for Jesus; Jesus went looking for disciples. The God of the Bible is an intruder.

For me, it does not matter that the Advent season does not appear in Christian history until the 8th Century. It does not matter that Christians have misunderstood the message of the intruding God. What matters to me as a follower of Jesus is that Christian people realize that the intruding God wants to break through into their lives so that the kingdom of God might have a chance in this present world.

In thinking about the word advent, it is obvious that the root word advent connects to our English word adventure. So, Advent is a season of the year when we open our eyes, ears and hearts to going on an adventure with the intruding God of the Bible.

I very much want to serve a God of love, joy and peace. The special attraction of the Advent season to me is going on a journey with an adventuresome God.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in retirement in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is [email protected].

9 comments for “The History of the Advent Season

  1. anselm
    December 21, 2012 at 16:33

    I have grown up a Catholic. I have never been taught the Jesus will return to establish a kingdom on Earth. In fact, I have been taught, “we worship a King who said ‘My Kingdom is not of this world'”.
    I have Jewish friends. They believe that Jesus is one of the prophets and their messiah is yet to come. They respect Catholic beliefs, even referring to the mother of Jesus as “Our Lady”.

  2. timothy canezaro
    December 19, 2012 at 20:27

    Hey. You are making points that have validity but are doing so in a disrespectful way to all the people that choose to be catholics or christian. This is a choice and Christians can claim believers from every corner of the earth.
    Now, I have zoroastrian, muslim, hindu, jewish, and native american friends. As a Catholic, I have used my life to reach out and respect people of other faiths and traditions and mahybe we even learned something from each other.
    The article posted here is on the season of Advent…so not sure what the point of your post is except to disprespect catholics and christians. Who we are is who we are regardless of your worldview and we will remain and continue doing the good work of our Lord and Savior. The ones that worry me the most are the youths that are lost and havn’t been taught where they are from or who they are. People without spirit or a sense of the sacred. Now that’s. Worrisome.

  3. timothy canezaro
    December 19, 2012 at 20:19

    Advent which means the arrival is like the author said the first month long season of the liturgical year in the Catholic Church. As part of the liturgical life of the Church, no it didn’t exist in Jesus time but rather came to be as the Bride of Christ made its way through the millenia until the present. Just as praying the Rosary or Fatima or the example of the Saints came to be through the Living Faith of the Church. The month long season of Advent serves to prepare one to celebrate and enter into the mystery of Jesus Christ’s birth and also to renew our anticipation of Christ’s coming again.
    May this season of Advent serve to renew our Faith in Jesus Christ and help those that are in need of prayers, help, and healing.

  4. Bob Loblaw
    December 18, 2012 at 19:52

    How can a God ever experience adventure? If “he” sees what will happen unknown outcomes(the definition of adventure) just do not happen.

    For that matter, how can a God experience life period?

    As a gnostic, I see our human role as experiencing life because God cannot. To see life from that point inside our heads where my name, hopes and dreams are but a temporary and tiny part of this grand existence.

    • gregorylkruse
      December 19, 2012 at 12:51

      It certainly is perplexing.

  5. Jeanne
    December 18, 2012 at 17:35

    The fact that “a season called Advent is not mentioned in the Bible” is irrelevant. “Christmas” isn’t mentioned either. But celebrating advent and Christmas does not conflict with Biblical teaching in any way. The real issue is whether something violates Biblical teachings. Advent does not.

    I also grew up in a Baptist church, Swedish Baptist to be exact, in Minnesota. I have no problem with many of the traditions of the liturgical churches. They add a richness and depth to the worship service that is lacking in many churches today.

  6. Morton Kurzweil
    December 18, 2012 at 17:21

    Baruch Spinoza 1632 – 1727 and Isaac Newton 1642 – 1727 were contemporary philosophers who changed the modern world from a superstitious belief in miracles to a critical scientific of mathematical clarity.
    While Newton remained absorbed in his beliefs in alchemy and end times biblical codes of end time predictions, he could not escape the emotional convictions of certainty available through faith while he could free his reason to produce a calculus and define the laws of motion.
    Spinoza presented his ideas as a series of geometric propositions that freed man from any bigotry of religion to include all in the identity of God. The morality of being an aspect, an attribute of creation relieves man from the necessity of fitting God into a dogma that fits the small mind and limited perception of the unknown.
    Before Advent, before Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, before all the gods that succored the ignorant and fearful, there was One, the universe beyond understanding. Before the superiority of one definition of God there was the need for herd security. The simple humility of a fragile vertebrate who finds unity in the fact that no two humans are equal redefines morality. Our genetic differences and our potential evolution are what makes us a species. The survival of the fittest species has a different morality than the survival of the fittest individual or the fittest belief.

    • fat freddie
      December 19, 2012 at 05:21

      Isn’t Baruch Spinoza recycled (by Story, but not by Nature) with the actual name of Barack? Apart from identikits, after the scientific stage there is the positive one (sorry for the math. lobbies, but A.Comte was right), and thereafter we have to look to leftwing hegelians and those two terrible guys (freddie and karl). Finally we can talking seriously with Peirce or Noah C. (if someone prefer Oxford canoe) or with Max Born (if Cambridge choice). With what happened recently in japan put some pence to Max-team: someone in the skies is playing not chess, but
      casinoes royal.

      • Morton Kurzweil
        December 19, 2012 at 13:49

        The subject was morality, not the defense of any belief.
        The lack of objective cognition suggests a real emotional problem.

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