As a child, Advent wasn’t one of the holidays that I understood. I was raised Roman Catholic, so during those years it was as familiar to my 6-year old self as Lent– which is to say they were periods of anticipation for Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny. (Oh, the crazy ways that idolatry invades everything, but I digress.) Maybe we had an advent wreath or am advent calendar around, and I remember getting them in my Catholic elementary school, but that was the limit. As I grew a little older, my family rotated through a few varieties of Protestantism, some of which certainly had Advent and some of which did not. I probably didn’t notice.
Curious about Advent in the bible? Read on!
None of the trappings of the Advent season are particularly biblical. The period that we now mark as Advent is mentioned only briefly in the Gospel of Luke. (The Christmas story in Matthew skips ahead to the birth.)
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world […] And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.
So while Catholics and many Protestants mark this holiday season with patient anticipation, Mary and Joseph marked it with an unpleasant amount of traveling. The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is about a hundred miles, many days of travel for someone in great health and certainly much more for a very pregnant engaged couple.
Of course, Advent isn’t really about the calendar month before Jesus’s birth, it’s about the anticipation of the messiah. The Roman Catholic liturgy for the season calls this out, beginning with readings from the prophets (especially Isaiah), then on the birth of John the Baptist, and finally the calendar lead up to Christmas. (Whether or not the bible supports a date in December as the date for Christmas will have to be a topic for another day.)
Recently, I have noticed how the Christian traditions for Advent reflect Jewish traditions for other holidays. Are these connections deliberate? A coincidence? A statement that in our religious toolbox there are only so many ways to celebrate? I’m not certain. But it’s fun to talk about.
The most interesting echo to me is the way that Advent resonates with the Jewish tradition of “counting the omer”. This tradition isn’t well-known by non-Jews, but is a period of forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot, the anniversary of God’s gift of the Torah at Mount Sinai. In both cases, it’s a holiday about the anxious anticipation of revelation. In case you are wondering, the counting of the omer IS a biblical holy-season, though perhaps not the most spelled-out one:
And ye shall count unto you from morrow after the a day of rest, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the waving; seven weeks shall there be complete; even unto the morrow after the seventh week shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall present a new meal-offering unto the LORD.
For Jews counting Omer, the key in that passage is that the days have to be counted. So too do some Christians traditionally count the days in Advent through the use of an Advent Calendar, a day-calendar where each day of the season an individual box is opened. Traditionally, these contain toys or candy. This is one of my favorites:
Advent calendars are also one of the great lies of the season. Almost without exception, Advent calendars include 24 doors: one for each of the days from December 1 to December 24. They do this because that means that many calendars can be reused, or at least not re-manufactured, from year to year. But Advent actually lasts anywhere from 21 to 28 days (beginning in late November or early December), depending on what day of the week Christmas happens to fall. All of these poor children have been learning the wrong dates for Advent all these years, but at least some of those years they have been getting extra presents so maybe it washes out. Advent calendars are the one Christmas tradition that my wife is envious of. Sure, she has Hanukkah and eight nights of presents, but Advent calendars have 24 nights of presents, not counting Christmas itself. That’s a pretty good deal.
And that leads me to the tradition of the Advent Wreath: generally a circular wreath with five candles, traditionally four red and one white in the center. These candles are lit one per week of Advent through the season, culminating in the lighting of the white candle on Christmas itself. What is this like? Well, Hanukkah, of course! Instead of lighting one candle for eight days, you light one per week for (almost) five weeks. As Hanukkah candles represent the light of the restoration of the Temple (and therefore Godliness) after it was profaned by the Greeks, the Advent candles represent the Christian view of the restoration of God through a new covenant. Both use the symbolism of gradually more candles being lit to represent the new light coming in (or returning to) the world.
It’s not surprising that two faiths as closely related as Judaism and Christianity would have similar traditions. It’s good to reflect on the similarities and the differences in the way that faith is expressed.
Up next: Another post before Christmas?