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David Cornick: The origins of Advent: past experience and present spirituality

David Cornick: The origins of Advent: past experience and present spirituality

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28 November 2022 at 19:44 Mark Argent

Session 1: The origins of Advent: past experience and present spirituality.


We live our lives by rhythms – of light and darkness, of the seasons of the year – rhythms of time. Once they had no names, although the existence of ritual landscapes like Stonehenge, which dates from the late Neolithic (about 4,700 years ago) shows just how skilled our ancestors were in judging and measuring their passing.

All religions harnessed themselves to these rhythms, creating measurement of time by the phases of the moon, or eventually by events. The migration of Mohammed and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622 was deemed so significant that it became the beginning of Muslim time, which is why this is 1444 for Muslims. Over three hundred years before that, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire (in 313), and it is a measure of the might and reach of Rome and later of Western Christendom, that time took a Christian shape – either ‘before Christ’ or ‘Christ’s time’. So it has been for nearly two thousand years, albeit that the more sensitive in a time of post-imperial guilt now prefer ‘Before the Common Era’ or ‘Common Era’.

Time, as we know it, is Christ shaped. First, in the days of the New Testament, Christians gathered together on the first day of the week to break bread as Christ had instructed and memorialise the day of resurrection (John 20:19 and Acts 20:7). By the middle of the second century, all those weekly celebrations coalesced into a yearly one day celebration of Easter. Granted there was little agreement on the date, and its relationship to the Passover, until the Council of Nicea imposed the system that we know today in 325, and in the years that followed the pattern of Lent and Holy Week was created and fixed by about 400.

When we think about the church of the early middle ages – say from around 400 to 1200 – we are inclined to think of a great monolith called ‘Christendom’, directed from Rome and all national churches obeying head office’s directions. It wasn’t like that at all! For a start there was no internet, and letters could take weeks or months to get from Rome to Tours or Canterbury. One of the great historians of the period suggested that we should think rather of a series of ‘micro-Christendoms’. That will help a great deal as we try to work out how the Christmas cycle developed and how Advent was created.

The first part of the Christmas cycle to emerge was Epiphany and it began in the micro-Christendom of Egypt – more specifically in Alexandria in the second century. It commemorated Christ’s baptism, and so it was seen as a suitable time for the baptism of new converts. In other places in the Christian world, like Milan in the 370s and 380s, it was linked to the journey of the magi and the presentation of their gifts to the Christ child. Already a dual focus was emerging – the baptism of Christ and the coming of the magi – Epiphany was never going to be simple!

Christmas, on the other hand, was. It was a Roman invention, sometime before the 350s, probably as an evangelical wheeze to point out to their pagan neighbours who celebrated December 25th as ‘…Dies natalis solis invincti’, the birthday the invincible Sun, that the true light of the world was Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and this was actually his birthday. Good mission skills! The Roman Christmas then was a simple, stand-alone, one day feast. So, where does Advent come from?

The first inklings are to be found in another micro-Christendom, France and Spain in the middle of the fourth century. Like the Egyptians, the Gauls believed Epiphany to be an ideal time to baptise new converts because it was the time in the Christian year when Christ’s baptism was recalled and remembered. And if baptism was to be observed properly, it needed to be preceded by a time of preparation. The Council of Saragossa in Spain in 380 refers to a three week period of preparation, extending from the 17th December to Epiphany on January 6th. The faithful were charged to be assiduous in their daily worship during this period, doubtless to support the candidates. About a century later (490), we know from the regulations of a bishop of Tours that that period of preparation was extended from three weeks to forty days, beginning with the feast of the local saint St Martin of Tours on 11th November, and ending not at Epiphany but Christmas. It was known as the Lent of St Martin, but in reality Advent had arrived.

It took roughly another century, until the pontificate of Gregory the Great (590-604) for the season of Advent to become part of the Roman liturgy, and that involved another twist. Rome’s evangelical success was Christmas, and for them it had come to mark the start of the Christian year. Because they read the Bible continuously through the year, there was a natural tendency for the readings in December to be about the last things, and that was to lend to Advent worship a flavour of waiting for the return of Christ in glory, as well as waiting for the birth at Bethlehem.

And so, slowly, the whole Christmas experience was fixed – the four weeks of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. As we’ve watched it evolve, we’ve been seeing the slow Christianising of time, and something of the fluid dynamism of Christian experience.

First came Epiphany and the importance of journeying from unbelief to faith in Jesus and its impressive, dramatic expression through the ritual of baptism, which in those days meant long preparation, fasting and the drama of baptism into new life itself. Then there was the shrewd imposition of Christmas onto the pagan feast of the birth of the sun. And finally Advent developed a ‘whole Christ perspective’ – concentrating not just on birth, death and resurrection, but the role of Christ in God’s purposes for the whole of creation in that focus at Advent on the second coming, as well as the first.

Slowly, over centuries, the experience of the worldwide church in all its diversity coalesced into something greater than the sum of all its parts. All that was established by about 700, and the Christian year came to have something of the shape that we recognise – as it were the ‘Christ-cycle’ which runs from Advent through to Pentecost of Trinity, or perhaps Corpus Christi on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, and then what we call ‘ordinary time’ which runs from about midsummer through to the beginning of Advent once more. Half the year following the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ, half the year working out how that affects our ‘ordinary’ time.

Advent has always been a time of waiting. In the ancient ‘micro-Christendoms’ of Egypt, Gaul and Spain, it was a time of waiting for baptism at Epiphany. As the Roman church developed its liturgy in the six and seventh centuries, it was a time of waiting which looked forward to the Second Coming of Christ with a sense of longing and dislocation from the world, which is caught beautifully by the ancient Advent hymn:

O come, O come, Immanuel,

And ransom captive Israel,

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear..

In the medieval church it was a waiting for Christmas. Advent was a time of fasting and penance, waiting for Christmas Day, with its three masses at midnight, dawn and mid-morning, St Stephen’s Day, St John the Evangelist’s Day and the feast of the Holy Innocents (or Childmas as it was known) when the festivities included the election of a Boy Bishop, and the children took the place of the adults in church, seated in the chancel and choir. It was a holiday and fun – and it lasted to Epiphany, with gifts given on New Year’s Day rather than Christmas Day as now. Like today though, there were carols and there was feasting.

We have inherited the ambiguities of Advent’s history. Our experience is on the one hand like that the ancient churches of Egypt, France and Spain. They were Christian minorities in a pre-Christian pagan world; we are a Christian minority in a post-Christian pagan world. As they waited for the union with Christ which baptism would bring at Epiphany, so we wait once more this year for the coming of the Christ-child at Bethlehem, to welcome him to our hearts and enthrone him. Yet our experience is also like that of the early Roman Church. We too know that the world is out of joint, ravaged by climate abuse, war, and famine, full of the greed and folly of humanity, and we too long for the day when Christ’s rule will be all in all. We too wait for Christ to come again, even if our poetry and language is a little different to that of the book of Revelation. And our experience of waiting is also like that of the medieval church. In the deep darkness of winter, we long for a feast, and much as we might find the commercialisation of Christmas distasteful and damaging, we rejoice that there is a dim memory of Christ in there somewhere which produces chords of generosity and kindness.

The ambiguity of Advent – waiting for the Second Coming, and for the First. It is well expressed in the collect for Advent Sunday:

Almighty God,

give us grace to cast away the works of darkness

and to put on the armour of light,

now in the time of this mortal life,

in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;

that on the last day,

when he shall come again in his glorious majesty

to judge the living and the dead,

we may rise to the life immortal;

through him who is alive and reigns with you,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever.

An ambiguity caught by the Lectionary – the first two Sundays concentrating on the Second Coming and the last days, the final two anticipating our journeying again to Bethlehem. And so we hold the totality of the Christ-event together – from the beginning of our salvation to the redemption of the world. I want to use two poems to help us explore that tension.

The first is by Anne Bronte, the middle Bronte sister, author of Agnes Grey and The tenant of Windfell Hall, as well as an accomplished poet. Its called A word to the Calvinists and it was written, remarkably, in 1843. She was 26 when she wrote it, and she died three years after it was written. Like many sensitive religious souls before and after her, Anne was much exercised by questions of salvation and judgement. She loved the poetry of the eighteenth century hymnwriter and poet, William Cowper (1731-1800), author of ‘God moves in a mysterious way’. Cowper was a depressive who suffered long periods of believing that he was eternally damned for his sins – a belief that was nurtured by a crude interpretation of Calvin’s understanding of predestination. Anne struggled with Cowper’s beliefs through a series of poems in the early 1840s, until she arrived at this secure and profound understanding that God’s love can never be defeated and that all be held within the eternal love of God. The poem is in two halves. In the first half she lambasts the Calvinists, secure in their own sense of salvation, yet seemingly unconcerned that other innocents were damned:

You may rejoice to think yourselves secure,
You may be grateful for the gift divine,
That grace unsought which made your black hearts pure
And fits your earthborn souls in Heaven to shine.
But is it sweet to look around and view
Thousands excluded from that happiness,
Which they deserve at least as much as you,
Their faults not greater nor their virtues less?

And wherefore should you love your God the more
Because to you alone his smiles are given,
Because He chose to pass the many o’er
And only bring the favoured few to Heaven?
And wherefore should your hearts more grateful prove
Because for all the Saviour did not die?
Is yours the God of justice and of love
And are your bosoms warm with charity?

Say does your heart expand to all mankind
And would you ever to your neighbour do,
— The weak, the strong, the enlightened and the blind -­
As you would have your neighbour do to you?

And, when you, looking on your fellow men
Behold them doomed to endless misery,
How can you talk of joy and rapture then?
May God withhold such cruel joy from me!

That none deserve eternal bliss I know:
Unmerited the grace in mercy given,
But none shall sink to everlasting woe
That have not well deserved the wrath of Heaven.


And then she turns her mind and heart towards Christ:

And, O! there lives within my heart
A hope long nursed by me,
(And should its cheering ray depart
How dark my soul would be)

That as in Adam all have died
In Christ shall all men live
And ever round his throne abide
Eternal praise to give;

That even the wicked shall at last
Be fitted for the skies
And when their dreadful doom is past
To life and light arise.

I ask not how remote the day
Nor what the sinner’s woe
Before their dross is purged away,
Enough for me to know

That when the cup of wrath is drained,
The metal purified,
They’ll cling to what they once disdained,
And live by Him that died.


Anne lived in a different age to ours. She had different battles to fight, yet there is something beautiful and wonderful about a young woman in 1843 asking those questions so profoundly and clearly. As Advent guides us to think about last things, about the final vindication of Christ’s mission, she invites us to focus our thinking on God’s love, God’s limitless grace. We worry unduly about the fate of those beyond the family of the faithful. Anne reminds us that we shouldn’t, for we can safely leave them in God’s loving hands – as in Adam all die, in Christ shall all be made alive, as Paul put it.

And so to the other pole of Advent tension, the first coming. U A Fanthorpe (1929-2009) was a Quaker, poet and school teacher. She used to write a Christmas poem to put inside her Christmas card to friends. This one is BC:AD, and it’s a meditation on that moment when time changed and the Christ was born.

This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.

And this was the moment

When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.

A meditation on the most important fulcrum in history – the birth of Jesus. A landscape of nothing. Up in the heavens tomorrow’s physicists and time experts, clock-makers and calendrists leapt to attention, presenting arms. But down on earth? From the perspective of the Roman empire, nothing much happening. Just a dull peace, no skirmishes, border disputes or wars, just lethargic tedium. An ideal time for a census in far off places like Judea. Just the kind of nights for walking ‘haphazard by starlight’ and finding yourself in the kingdom of heaven.

We know where the Christ-child is to be found. That is the goal of our Advent journey, to travel again to Bethlehem, one eye on the manger, the other on the clouds of glory of the End Times. But the risen Christ, who comes to our hearts, speaks to us from everywhere and nowhere, in the plight of the poor, in the suffering of the ill and needy, in the joy of lovers and the tears of the sorrowful, and just when we are so self-obsessed, or so focused on something else, when all around is dullness and nothing is happening, then too he is there, surprising us with his advent, inviting us to walk ‘haphazard by starlight’ into his kingdom.

Even so, come Lord Jesus.


This paper is unreferenced, but these are my principle sources:

Vincent Ryan OSB ‘Origins and development of Advent’ – available on line at www.catholicireland.net

Nicholas Orme Going to Church in medieval England (London, Yale UP 2021)

Peter Brown in many books for ‘micro-Christendoms’

The poems are readily available online; I’ve drawn a little on Janet Morley Haphazard by starlight: a poem a day from Advent to Epiphany (London, SPCK 2013) for what I say about U.A. Fanthorpe.