The Neglected Meaning of Advent

Today marks the first of four Sundays traditionally celebrated by the church as the season of Advent. And with live nativity displays, Christmas plays, and Advent calendars you’d be forgiven if you thought that Advent was only about the birth of Jesus.

But there’s more to Advent than the Bethlehem stable. Historically, the church has focused as much on anticipating the return of our glorious King as celebrating his birth. By examining the history of Advent, we recover this season’s neglected meaning.

Easter First

The earliest church centered its liturgical calendar around Easter. In fact, little evidence exists for the celebration of Jesus’s nativity during the first two centuries of church history. The New Testament, after all, discloses little detail concerning the time of Jesus’s birth. Of the Gospels, only Luke’s narrative hints at a time of year: lambing season in early winter when shepherds would have needed to keep watch over their flocks (Luke 2:8).

Where the Scriptures were silent, early Christian authors were too. There is no mention of birth celebrations in Christian writings from the first and second centuries.1 The earliest church, instead, focused on what the New Testament described with great detail — the final days of Jesus the Messiah. 2 For this reason, the celebration of Easter at the time of the Jewish Passover was the primary focus of Christian practice from the earliest days of the church — a celebration Paul implies in 1 Corinthians 5:7–8.

Despite the absence of Christmas celebration, by the end of the second century there was significant interest in determining a date for Jesus’s birth. This interest probably reflects the church’s apologetic emphasis on Jesus’s physical birth in the face of those who were skeptical of his full humanity. While there was vigorous debate around possible dates, by the early fourth century consensus emerged around two likely candidates: December 25 and January 6.3 Over time, the former became the traditional celebration of Christmas and the latter the celebration of Epiphany.4

From Easter to Christmas

But why December 25? Based on their understanding of Daniel’s prophecy, some early Christian writers reasoned that Jesus was conceived on the same day that he was later crucified. Tertullian (ca. 155–220) calculated that Jesus was crucified on the 14th of Nisan, the equivalent of March 25 on the Roman (solar) calendar — exactly nine months before December 25.5 Christians, therefore, reckoned the date of Christmas from their observance of Easter. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) relayed this understanding in On the Trinity: “He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered . . . but He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”6

That Jesus was conceived on the same day he would eventually give up his life may at first seem unlikely. But consider, as the early church did, the equal unlikelihood that the Messiah’s propitiatory death would exactly coincide with the celebration of Passover.7 As Peter confessed, all events, whether seemingly inconsiderable or inestimably significant, are guided by God’s “definite plan and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23). His works in creation and his ways in history are beautiful and symmetrical (Psalm 18:30; Isaiah 46:10).

From Christmas to Advent

The precise origins of Advent celebrations are more difficult to determine. By the middle of the fourth century, celebrations of Jesus’s birth on December 25 in the West were increasingly common. A longer period of celebration like that of Lent (the period of fasting and reflection preceding Easter) soon developed around it. In 380, the church council in Saragossa set apart three weeks in December, culminating in the celebration of Epiphany.

So also, the church in Rome began formalizing Advent observances. The Gelasian Sacramentary of the late fourth century includes liturgies for five Sundays leading up to Christmas. By the mid-sixth century, bishops in France had proclaimed a fast on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from November 11 until Christmas Day.8 Pope Gregory I (540–604; also known as Gregory the Great) further developed the Advent liturgies by composing prayers, songs, readings, and responses for congregational worship. Over the next century, these practices spread to England. Finally, around the turn of the millennium, Gregory VII (1015–1085) standardized the four Sundays leading up to December 25 as the period of Advent.

Advent’s Neglected Meaning

Despite the challenge of tracing Advent’s origin, two things are historically clear about the celebration itself. First, in contrast to Lent (a somber season of fasting, reflection, and meditation on the suffering of Christ), the weeks leading up to Christmas were full of jubilance and festivity. In Advent, the church looked back to celebrate the incarnation as the fulfillment of God’s promise to deliver his people from sin, Satan, and death (Genesis 3:15). The church rejoiced with the apostle John, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Advent celebrations often concluded with baptisms and highlighted new life and union with the incarnate Christ.

What is often neglected, however, is that Advent celebrations also looked to the future. The term “advent” (Latin, adventus) translates the Greek parousia, a word that in the New Testament always speaks of the Messiah’s second coming. Advent looks forward to the final realization of all that Jesus’s incarnation at Christmas put into motion. For this reason, instead of the Gospels’ birth narratives, Advent sermons often centered on eschatological passages (like Luke 21:25–36 and Matthew 24:37–44) or on the Triumphal Entry (Matthew 21:1–9) as a joyful anticipation of Jesus’s victorious second coming. Leo I (400–461) reminded his congregation that Christmas looked both backward and forward:

Hence because we are born for the present and reborn for the future, let us not give ourselves up to temporal goods, but to eternal: and in order that we may behold our hope nearer, let us think on what the Divine Grace has bestowed on our nature on the very occasion when we celebrate the mystery of the Lord’s birthday. Let us hear the Apostle, saying: “for ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. But when Christ, who is your life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory” who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Ghost for ever and ever. Amen.9

Songs of the Second Coming

This future orientation was reflected not only in sermons, but also in song. In the sixth century, a series of seven Advent songs emerged, one for each day of the week leading up to Christmas. Called the Great Antiphons (or the “O” Antiphons), each expresses longing for the Messiah’s return:

O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

This rich tradition of looking back and looking forward has been passed on to Reformed Protestant denominations. In the Book of Common Prayer (1549), Thomas Cranmer (1489–1555) used material from the Gelasian Sacramentary and the writings of Gregory the Great to develop Advent liturgies reflecting on both Christ’s nativity and his second coming. While many contemporary services focus on themes of hope, joy, peace, and love, Cranmer’s Advent liturgies are primarily focused on Christ’s future appearing.10

We may neglect Advent’s future-orientation in our contemporary celebration, but, intriguingly, the theme of Jesus’s second coming runs deep in our favorite Christmas carols. Isaac Watts’s (1674–1748) “Joy to the World” celebrates Jesus’s glorious return and his future kingdom where sin and sorrow are no more (Revelation 21:4):

Joy to the world! the Savior reigns;
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as the curse is found.

Finally, consider John Mason Neale and Henry Coffin’s “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” a translation of the ancient Great Antiphons:

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

History illuminates the richness of Advent’s celebration and anticipation. And one practical way of recovering the deep joy of this future-oriented season might just be to believe what we sing.

  1. Origen of Alexandria (c. 165–264) expresses a strong, presumably widely held disdain for “pagan” Roman celebration of birth anniversaries. See The Fathers of the Church, vol. 83, Homilies on Leviticus 1–16, trans. Gary Wayne Barkley (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press), 156. 

  2. Unlike the birth narratives, the Passion narratives reveal significant details as to the timing of Jesus’s death and resurrection. The Gospels are unanimous in indicating that Jesus died on the fifteenth of the Hebrew month of Nisan, the first day of the celebration of Passover. 

  3. Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150–215) suggests a number of the theories under discussion in the late second and early third centuries (see Stromata 1.21.145). 

  4. For centuries, Jesus’s birth was celebrated on December 25 in the Western Roman empire and on January 6 in the East. Over time, however, December 25 has become common practice for most Christians. January 6 commemorates the arrival of the magi at Bethlehem, known as Epiphany. In some traditions, the period between these two dates is celebrated as the twelve days of Christmas. 

  5. Tertullian understood this on the basis of Daniel 9:24–27 (LXX). See Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews, 8. Hippolytus of Rome (ca. 170–235) argued the same. See Hippolytus, Commentary on Daniel, 4.23.3. 

  6. Augustine, On the Trinity, 4.5.9. Augustine also reports the view that John the Baptist was born on June 24, the summer solstice in 33 BC, and Jesus was born on December 25, shortly after the winter solstice (On The Psalms, 133.8). The Chronograph of 354, developed by Furius Dionysius Filocalus, is perhaps the oldest document we possess reporting “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea” on December 25. 

  7. The church in the East relied on similar calculations to arrive at January 6. For a more detailed description of the dating of Christmas, see Andrew McGowan, “How December 25 Became Christmas,” Bible Archaeology Society, June 1, 2023. For a concise summary of the literature on the date of Christmas, see Frank Senn, Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 159–62. 

  8. Council of Mâcon, 581. 

  9. Leo the Great, “Sermons,” in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, vol. 12a, Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Charles Lett Feltoe (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1895), 141. 

  10. Three of Cranmer’s Advent collects (I, II, and Christmas Day) are of his own composition. Emphasis on themes of hope, joy, peace, and love appear in the Roman and Anglican traditions beginning in the nineteenth century. These themes also appear in Methodist and Presbyterian liturgical guides, with variations in order and theme.