From Journey Into the Heart of God
There is an almost innate pattern in human behavior of fast before feast, preparation followed by celebration, anticipation and preparation leading to feasting, but otherwise the origins of the season of Advent are obscure. Liturgical historians have in recent decades become notably skeptical regarding our knowledge of the origins and development of the seasons of the liturgical year. We possess little sure and certain knowledge, only fragmentary and isolated pieces of evidence. It is like having a dozen or so pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and that basis attempting to imagine what the whole puzzle looks like. We will see with regard not only to Advent but also to Christmas, Epiphany, and Lent competing hypotheses with little agreement. Each hypothesis concerning the origins of Advent is of continuing interest: none is entirely credible.
Advent may have its origins outside of Rome in preparation for baptism at Epiphany. There was in Gaul, attested by Hilary who died in 367, a three-week preparation for Epiphany and its baptisms. The Council of Saragossa in Spain in the year 380 speaks of a three-week observance from December 17 to January 6.
Perpetuus, Bishop of Tours (d. 490), decreed a fast in preparation for Christmas beginning on St. Martin’s Day (November 11) consisting of three days of fasting per week. Sixth-century synodical documents and episcopal decrees enjoin penitence from St. Martin’s Day (November 11) to the Epiphany, “St. Martin’s Lent,,” continuing for eight weeks (fifty-six days, but no fasting on Saturday or Sunday gives a fast of forty days). These fasts had a penitential emphasis, suggesting that they were at least primarily a preparation for baptism. The Mozarabic rite in Spain and the Ambrosian rite in Milan have a six-week preparation. In the present Ambrosian rite Advent begins the Sunday after November 11. Northern Italian sources suggest a focus on the Incarnation rather than the Epiphany. Filastrius, Bishop of Brescia (d. 391), says that the church observes four fasts during the year: at Jesus’s birth, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. The pre-Christmas fast may have been newly established or perhaps had been shifted from a preparation for Epiphany. Maximum of Turin suggests that there are two Sundays of preparation for Christmas; the practice in mid-fifth century Ravenna is similar.
In pagan Rome there was a fast of the tenth month (December), one of the four season fasts of the year. Advent may have been in part the church’s response to this pre-Christian winter fast. The evidence suggests that until Gregory I (590–604), a six-week Advent was observed in Rome. The church in Spain and Gaul perhaps gave the emerging season its penitential character. Gaul emphasized the eschatological character of the preparation, Adolf Adam suggests, through the influence of Irish missionaries who emphasized the coming judgment and the need for repentance before the return of the Judge. Advent became a penitential season like Lent with the use of violet vestments and the exclusion of the Gloria in excelsis and Alleluias from the Mass and the Te Deum from the Office. The penitential character was brought to Rome in the twelfth century, but there the joyous Alleluia was retained, showing a less than complete acceptance of the penitential spirit. The practice of fasting varied in local communities: three weeks in Gaul and Spain in the fourth century, four weeks in the Gregorian sacramentary, five or six weeks in older Roman practice, six weeks in the Mozarabic and Ambrosian rites, eight weeks in Gaul in the fifth century, and three months, from the conception of John the Baptist, September 24, which was once the beginning of the civil year in Constantinople and throughout Asia Minor. This wide variation suggests a complex development of what began as more than a simple preparatory period before Christmas.
The seventh-century Comes (lectionary) of Würtzburg begins with the Vigil of Christmas, where the story began, and therefore the lessons at the end of the year tell of the end of the story: the last judgment and the reign of Christ. The Gelasian sacramentary (the manuscript is mid-eighth century) is the oldest known sacramentary in which the feasts are arranged according to the church year. That collection begins with Advent; collects, Epistles, and Gospels are provided for five Sundays before Christmas and also for the corresponding Wednesdays and Fridays.
Gregory the Great fixed the length of the preparatory period at four weeks, usually explained as a reliving of the four thousand years of waiting for the coming of the Messiah, the birth of Christ being widely thought to have occurred some four thousand years after creation began. A Middle English lyric sings,
Adam lay ybounden,
Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter
Thought he not too long….
Thus there were propers provided for masses for the four Sundays before Christmas and for three Ember Day masses (Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the Third Sunday in Advent) that make use of Advent themes. The season is oriented toward preparation for the celebration of the Nativity.