Through Scripture, ritual and song, Christians who observe the reflective four-week season of Advent will, at home and at church, prepare to celebrate the nativity of Jesus.
But Advent, pastors say, is not just a spiritual counterpart to the secular holiday blitz.
"Advent is pre-eminently a calling into question of what we think of as ultimate," said the Rev. Daniel Benedict, worship resources director for the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church. "We are waiting for what God is yet to do. Advent sounds that note very strongly."
Rooted in the Latin word "adventus," meaning "coming" or "arrival," Advent is a season of spiritual preparation both for Christmas, when Christians mark Jesus' birth, and for his Second Coming on Judgment Day. Its theological reach thus spans from the messianic prophesies and longings of the ancient Israelites to the end of the world.
Not as old as the feast of Christmas itself, Advent may have originated in fourth and fifth century Gaul and Spain, where a pre-Epiphany time of prayer and fasting was observed -- likely to prepare for baptisms held on the feast commemorating the baptism of Jesus.
By the fifth century, another custom had arisen of giving sermons exhorting the faithful to prepare for the feast of Christmas. The observances spread; in 567 the Second Council of Tours called on local monks to fast from the beginning of December until Christmas. It was later expanded to 40 days to mirror the Lenten fast, and the laity were encouraged
to join in. In the 11th century, Advent was shortened, and it now starts four Sundays before Christmas.
The penitential dimension of Advent has largely been dropped, although Eastern Orthodox Christians still observe a 40-day period of prayer and fasting before celebrating the nativity of Jesus.
By the time it was a fixture on the Christian calendar, Advent had been theologically linked with the Second Coming -- a "dual Advent," as Dennis Bratcher terms it.
Bratcher is director of the Oklahoma City-based Christian Resource Institute (www.cresourcei.org), a Web site he created to provide nondenominational biblical and theological resources relating to everyday Christian life.
“We usually associate Advent just with Christmas," he said, "but it really has a double sense on a theological, spiritual level, as it articulates that sense of hope, of anticipation, that God has worked in history and will continue to work in history."
An ordained minister in the Church of the Nazarene, Bratcher said he has noticed a surge of interest in Advent – and all things liturgical – among evangelicals.
"Many of the letters (I get) are from traditions that are just now discovering the liturgical dimensions of Christianity," he said, noting that some of his more interesting letters come from Southern Baptists, who, like Nazarenes, are not historically liturgical.
Last year, almost 3 million spiritual surfers visited his Advent pages during the month of December alone, Bratcher said.
Part of the church year's appeal for evangelicals, he believes, is its mystical journey. "The church year takes people beyond longing and expectation before Christmas to reflection and repentance in Lent to the celebration of hope at Easter," he said.
And, for Christians who bemoan the hijacking of their holiday, Advent has a special bonus.
"The recovery of Advent, or the institution of Advent, is a way to counter the commercialization of Christmas," Bratcher said. "It's a way to be deliberately spiritual. ... Advent is really a way to recover Christmas."
As evangelical Christians venture into the church year, however, they encounter a new set of cultural dilemmas that have faced their more high church brethren for years. Not least among them: what to do with Christmas carols during Advent.
"Many churches struggle with the issue of singing Advent hymns instead of going with the larger culture which is, by Thanksgiving, already playing Christmas songs in the stores," said Benedict, of the United Methodist Church.
Benedict noted that congregations now have a rich repertoire of Advent music, including the perennial favorites "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "Soon and Very Soon," a more contemporary piece by Andre Crouch.
Cultural tensions aside, Advent has a special texture – and a resilience – all its own, according to the Rev. Michael Burk, director for worship of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
"It's one of the seasons of the church year that people really get, that's a season unto itself," Burk said. "There's a simplicity to Advent. ... There's a kind of solemnity and sacred quality to it when everything around seems busy and hurried."
Copyright 2003 Religion News Service