A couple of weeks ago I posted an Advent poll (which you can still participate in, if you’d like). Based on some of the comments on that post, as well as other conversations I’ve had, I think there are a lot of people who are interested in Advent, but simply inexperienced or uninformed about it. I understand that, because I was in exactly the same boat until about three years ago.
There are two questions in the title of this post. I want to try, with your help, to answer both.
In answer to the first part of the question (What is Advent?), I would say from my limited experience that Advent provides a structured way to spend an extended period of time meditating on both the Incarnation (the first coming) and the return (the second coming) of Christ. Here’s a brief but helpful history of the development of Advent, from the Encyclopedia Britannica:
(from Latin adventus, “coming”), in the Christian church calendar, the period of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas and also of preparation for the Second Coming of Christ. It begins on the Sunday nearest to November 30 (St. Andrew’s Day) and is the beginning of the new church year. The date when the season was first observed is uncertain. Bishop Perpetuus of Tours (461–490) established a fast before Christmas that began on November 11 (St. Martin’s Day), and the Council of Tours (567) mentioned an Advent season. Its liturgical meaning referred to the dual “coming” of Jesus—his incarnation in Bethlehem and his second coming as judge at the end of time. Together with Lent it was observed as a penitential season, though not with the same rigour as Lent. Consequently, Advent developed increasingly into the joyful anticipation of Jesus’ birth.
If you’re looking for a more detailed description of Advent traditions, you might want to browse through Dennis Bratcher’s site.
The themes and elements of Advent celebrations can vary widely, especially if a formal church liturgy isn’t followed. We’ve created our own unique Advent celebrations at home and at church, incorporating some of the traditional elements of Advent (a wreath, a Jesse tree, etc.) with some customs and ideas of our own. So Advent can be celebrated in a variety of traditional and non-traditional ways. The key is not the form Advent celebrations may take; the key is spending a sustained period of time focusing on Christ, and meditating deeply on the profound significance of his (once and future) coming.
Now I want to hand off the second part of the question to you–how do you celebrate Advent, and what impact has it had on you and your family? Be as detailed as you’d like.