The liturgical season of Advent marks the time of spiritual preparation by the faithful before Christmas. Advent begins on the Sunday closest to the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle (November 30), and spans four Sundays and four weeks of preparation.
The celebration of Advent has evolved in the spiritual life of the Church. The historical origins of Advent are hard to determine with great precision. In the earliest form, beginning in France, Advent was a period of preparation for the Feast of the Epiphany, a day when converts were baptized; so the Advent preparation was very similar to Lent with an emphasis on prayer and fasting, which lasted three weeks and later was expanded to 40 days.
The Church gradually formalized the celebration of Advent. The Gelasian Sacramentary, traditionally attributed to Pope St. Gelasius I (d. 496), was the first to provide Advent liturgies for five Sundays. Later, Pope Gregory I (d. 604) enhanced these liturgies composing prayers, antiphons, readings, and responses. Pope St. Gregory VII (d. 1095) later reduced the number of Sundays in Advent to four. Finally, about the ninth century, the Church designated the first Sunday of Advent as the beginning of the Church year.
Despite the sketchy history behind Advent, the importance of this season remains to focus on the coming of our Lord. Advent actually comes from the Latin adventus, meaning coming. The Catechism stresses the two-fold meaning of this coming: When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Saviors first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for His second coming (N0. 524).
A faithful way to help us in our Advent preparation has been the use of the Advent wreathe, a tradition borrowed from the German Lutherans in the early 1500s. The wreathe is a circle, which has no beginning or end, so we call to mind how our lives, here and now, participate in the eternity of God's plan of salvation and how we hope to share eternal life through His passion, death, and resurrection. Three candles are purple, symbolizing penance, preparation, and sacrifice; the pink candle symbolizes the same but highlights the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, when we rejoice because our preparation is now half-way finished.
The light represents Christ, who entered this world to scatter the darkness of evil and show us the way of righteousness. The progression of lighting candles shows our increasing readiness to meet our Lord. In all, during Advent we strive to fulfill the opening prayer for the Mass of the first Sunday of Advent: "Father in Heaven,…increase our longing for Christ our Savior and give us the strength to grow in love, that the dawn of His coming may find us rejoicing in His presence and welcoming of His truth."
Acknowledgment: Saunders, Rev. William. The Liturgical Season of Advent. Arlington Catholic Herald.