Advent is a period of expectation and preparation, as the Church prepares to celebrate the coming (adventus) of Christ in his incarnation, and also looks ahead to his final advent as judge at the end of time. The readings and liturgies not only direct us towards Christ’s birth, but they also challenge us to confront the theme of divine judgement, as expressed in the words of Charles Wesley – Every eye shall now behold him robed in dreadful majesty.
The Four Last Things – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell – have been traditional themes for Advent meditation. Church decorations are simple and sparse, and purple is the traditional liturgical colour. As Advent falls at the darkest time of the year, the natural symbols of darkness and light are powerfully at work throughout Advent and Christmas.
All this stands in stark contrast to the anticipation of Christmas under commercial pressure which can make it harder to sustain the appropriate sense of alert watchfulness. For the Church and her people the fundamental Advent prayer remains ‘Maranatha’ – ‘Our Lord, come’
The Advent Wreath
The lighting of candles on an Advent wreath was imported into Britain from northern Europe in the nineteenth century, and is now a common practice. We light one purple candle each Sunday during Advent (but a rose candle on the Third Sunday of Advent, following the observation in medieval times of this day as a splash of colour in the restrained atmosphere of Advent – Gaudete or ‘Rose Sunday’), and the central white candle on Christmas Day.
The Moravian custom of the Christingle has similarly enjoyed great success in Britain since the latter part of the twentieth century, with the encouragement of the Children’s Society; Christingle services may take place before or after Christmas – more details of ours can be found here.
Advent Carol Service
Advent Sunday marks the beginning of a period of preparation and waiting as we look towards Christmas Day and the birth of Christ. It also marks the beginning of the Church’s year which proceeds through Christmas and Epiphany, to Lent and Holy Week and on to Easter, the Ascension and Pentecost. On that day, we begin a pilgrimage through the year that follows the way of Christ on earth and so endeavours to allow his footsteps to lead our own, his story to shape our story.
For this reason, the Advent Carol Service on Advent Sunday is a service filled with movement, as the clergy and choir make their way from the west to the east end of the church. On the way, the readings are read from the various places of our commitment to God: the doors where we enter and are sent out to the world, the font where we dedicate ourselves to God, the aisle where we share the peace and build up our common life, the lectern where we hear God’s word and the pulpit where we reflect on it, the choir stalls where we worship and the altar where we receive the body and blood of Christ. So the measured steps of this service describe the pattern of our lives together, forming us as Christ’s people.
The service is structured around the seven Advent antiphons, the traditional refrains used at evening prayer in the seven days before Christmas Eve. They call on God to come to us as teacher and deliverer. As we begin to measure out the days until Christmas we await the coming of the one by whose measure the true identity and destiny of the world will be revealed; he who ‘fills all creations and reigns to the ends of the earth’, as the first antiphon puts it.
In Him is our hope, in Him is the light that came into the world and overcomes our darkness. In Him is wisdom, salvation and redemption. He is the Sun of Righteousness who scatters the darkness from before our paths. We look for the arrival of his presence among us, now as we await Christmas, and throughout the year, in all our steps as we journey on.