Advent Sunday, at the end of November or in early December, begins the Western liturgical year. It is then followed by three further Sundays of Advent, in which the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist and Mary, the Mother of God, are remembered. One each Sunday, another candle is lit on an advent wreath in church, to mark our journey through the season. The final (white) candle at the centre of the wreath is lit during the Christmas celebrations, to show that Jesus, the Light of the World, is with us.
But Advent is not simply a period of preparation for Christmas. The Latin term adventus (‘approach’) also refers to the Second Coming of Christ. Consequently, Advent begins with an emphasis on the need for our readiness to face the end-time – or, in traditional terms, the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell.
However, the emphasis changes as we draw nearer to Christmas. The period from 17 December is known as O Sapientia. There is now a quality of rising joy and expectation, as vespers on each day employs an antiphon relating to the attributes of Christ:
December 17: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
December 18: O Adonai (O Lord)
December 19: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
December 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
December 21: O Oriens (O Dayspring)
December 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations)
December 23: O Emmanuel (O With Us is God).
Those who use the Church of England office of evening prayer (see the link under Spirituality on the website) will find themselves participating in a tradition which may go back as far as the fourth century. The hymn ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’ is also based on the ‘O Antiphons’.
The liturgical colour for Advent is purple – a colour of preparation, as with Lent.