In the Christian Church Advent is the period preceding the Christmas season. It begins on the Sunday nearest November 30, the feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle, and covers four Sundays. This year Advent began last Sunday, December 2.

The word advent, from Latin, means “the coming.” As the Christmas season has become more secular, with advertisers urging holiday gift-givers to buy and buy some more, Advent still focuses more on the observance of ancient customs. Christian families find quiet moments lighting candles in the Advent wreath, and children use Advent calendars to count the days until Christmas.

It is unknown when the period of preparation for Christmas that is now called Advent first began – it was certainly in existence from about 480. Some have even said it goes back to the time of the Twelve Apostles or that it was founded by Saint Peter himself. This has led to the conclusion that it is “impossible to claim with confidence a credible explanation of the origin of Advent”.

Originally, it was a time when converts to Christianity readied themselves for baptism. Advent was considered a pre-Christmas season of Lent when Christians devoted themselves to prayer and fasting. By the 6th century, however, Roman Christians had tied Advent to the coming of Christ. But the “coming” they had in mind was not Christ’s first coming in the manger in Bethlehem, but his second coming in the clouds as the judge of the world.

Advent hymns are not “Christmas” songs. They are ‘waiting” songs. Songs that help us anticipate the coming of Christ, which is celebrated on Christmas Day. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is one of my favorites.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel,

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel

This hymn is a prayer that anticipates the coming of Christ to the earth. His coming as the Messiah (“deliverer”) was first prophesied in the sixth century B.C., when the Jews were captive in Babylon. For centuries thereafter, faithful Hebrews looked for their Messiah with great longing and expectation, echoing the prayer that he would “ransom captive Israel.”

Jesus Christ the Redeemer—capstone of man’s longing through the ages—is addressed in the first stanza of this hymn as “Emmanuel.” From beginning to end, all the stanzas of the hymn remind us of Christ’s first advent, and project our attention to His second coming.

An Advent Prayer in the United Methodist Hymnal (#201) helps prepare us for a proper celebration of Christmas.

Merciful God, you sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation.

Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may celebrate aright the coming of the nativity and may await with joy the coming of Jesus Christ, our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God forever and ever. Amen.

May this be our prayer as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Jamie Jenkins