What you need to know:
The observance of Christmas at a particular time of the year illustrates that the promised Messiah came our way in time and space
Major Christian denominations prepare to celebrate the birthday of the Saviour, Christmas, with the season known as Advent. The purpose of Christmas is very well expressed in Matthew 23:37. Jesus came to save, gather and unite all people, like a hen gathers her chicks.
The observance of Christmas at a particular time of the year illustrates that the promised Messiah came our way in time and space. “But when the right time came, God sent his son, born of a woman..” (Galatians 4:4). The exact date may not be the issue.
Given the diversity of cultures and geography, however, the mode of the observance of Advent and and celebration of Christmas may vary. This aspect underscores unity in diversity being the essence of Christian ecumenism. Hence, the moment we engage in hyping our diversities over and above unity, the purpose of Advent and Christmas may be jeopardized.
The season of Advent originated as a period during which converts prepared themselves for baptism through instruction, prayer, fasting, and reflection, much like Lent. During the Middle Ages, Advent became a time to prepare for the Second Coming, because in those days, many people were convinced that all the signs pointed to the imminent return of Christ.
Modern-day Advent services include symbolic customs related to “three advents” of Christ. The the first advent reflects the Jews expecting the long awaited Messiah, as prophesied by Isaiah and others. The second advent is the presence of Jesus, already in the lives of Christians, through the Holy Spirit. The third advent is the triumphal return of Jesus, at the end of time.
Christians mark the first day of Advent also as the first day of a new Liturgical (or church) calendar, by beginning a four week period of preparation in anticipation of the nativity of Jesus at Christmas.
Regardless of denominations, Christians observe Advent as a period of spiritual preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ. It typically involves prayer, fasting, and repentance, followed by anticipation, hope, and joy.
Different denominations utilize certain symbolism during the season as well. For instance, in the Catholic Church, priests wear purple vestments during the season (just like they do during Lent, the other preparatory liturgical season), and stop saying the “Gloria” during Mass until Christmas. For church holidays in Orthodox Christianity, the old Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BCE is used. In the Julian calendar, December 25 falls on the 7th of January of the Gregorian calendar, which is why it is being celebrated on that date.
In Western Christianity (Europe, America, etc), Christmas is celebrated using the Gregorian calendar established by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. The season of Advent begins on the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas Day, and lasts through December 24th.
The Orthodox Church retains the original forty-day period, rather than four weeks, in a parallel to the 40 days of Lent prior to Easter. They devote the last two Sundays the Forefathers of Christ, and the Nativity. The Sunday of the Forefathers recalls the patriarchs, prophets, and holy people of the Old Testament who prefigured Christ. The Sunday before the Nativity features the message of Angel Gabriel to Joseph, according to the Gospel, Matthew 1:1-25.
Both Sundays emphasize that Christ is the fulfillment of the prophets and is the legitimate messiah coming from the royal line of David. As we go through the Advent season, Christians should learn to think outside the box of their particular denominations, and prepare to embrace Christian ecumenism. This is the spirit that will serves the interests of the mission of Jesus: “So, may they all may be one; as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be one in Us: that the world may believe that You have sent Me.” (John 17:21).
John Wynand Katende, [email protected]