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Advent or Not-Advent

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Written by Basil on 11/29/2004 12:04 AM. Filed under:

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On the OrthodoxPSALM mailing list, a particpant writes, “Isn’t this Advent?”

This is perhaps an eccentric thorn for me, but I would be interested to hear the opinions of others, especially opinions that consider translation issues.

No, it is not Advent. It is variously termed “the Nativity fast,” “the Christmas fast,” “the Winter fast,” “Winter lent,” or “St. Philip’s fast.”

Advent is a season that begins the first Sunday after the Sunday of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Church year in the West. Advent, then, marks the beginning of the Church calendar in the West.

The calendars of the Orthodox Church begin on September 1.

Advent is made up of the four Sundays preceding Christmas. (Christ the King thus falls on the Fifth Sunday before Christmas every year.) The themes of the four Sundays are taken from the readings for that day (which include an Old Testament lection which is often key in understanding the day). The second Sunday before Christmas focuses on St. John the Baptist, the last on the Mother of God.

The Christmas fast begins on November 15, and thus includes a total of six Sundays. The second Sunday before Christmas is the Feast of the Fathers, the last is the Feast of the Fore-fathers. The readings for the other four Sundays are drawn from the post-Pentecostal cycle and are unrelated to Christmas. Orthodox lectionaries do not include Old Testament readings for the Divine Liturgy.

One of the central liturgical rites of Advent is the Advent Wreath: three purple candles, one rose, and one white. The three purple candles are lit on the first three Sundays of Advent, the rose on the last (rose having been chosen to symbolize the Mother of God). The white candle rests in the center and is lit on Christmas day. The candles remain lit throughout the Christmas season (Dec. 25-Jan. 5, Epiphany eve).

The Christmas fast has no similar rite, except when it is borrowed. The resulting wreath is either four candles or six. If four, what does one do with the previous two Sundays, and how does one explain why there are only four? If six, it looks dreadful compared with the symmetry and simplicity of the Advent Wreath.

Advent is a completely different season, and it is not the Christmas fast liturgically. (Most Western Christians do not fast during Advent, needless to say.) I love Advent, myself, and I miss it a great deal. But it helps no one to make a hybrid of the two when they are so totally dissimilar. It is even less helpful to call one season by a name that describes another. They are not even remotely similar. They both precede Christmas; there the similarity ends.

What say you?

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20 Responses to “Advent or Not-Advent”

  1. pete Says:

    why does the Orthodox calendar begin September 1? What’s the significance?

  2. basil Says:

    Pete, the civil calendar of the Byzantine Empire began on September 1. For better or worse, the date has been retained as the beginning of the year on Orthodox calendars.

    To put it in a more comprehensive perspective, however, the first major feast of the Church year follows very quickly on September 8, The Birth of the Virgin. The last of the festal cycle is similarly August 15, the Dormition of the Virgin. The Marian cycle provides a anthropical envelope for the Dominical cycle, which begins on September 14 with the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and ends on August 7 with the Transfiguration. This anthropical envelope provides a lens for understanding the Incarnation in a soteriological context.

    So, there’s a deeper, spiritual meaning transcending the conserving of the imperial civil calendar.

  3. James Says:

    Yeah Basil, different seasons. I agree.

  4. pete Says:

    huh. interesting.

  5. Tabitha Says:

    Okay, Basil, layman’s English please! I believe you are saying that the life of Mary provides a human framework in which to understand the importance of the Incarnation to each and every one of us, yes? In other words, she is the example of a Christ-filled life?

  6. Tabitha Says:

    Also, I’m not so sure that you should be so quick to dismiss something like Advent or the Advent Wreath simply because it is not the way other Orthodox traditions and cultures have spent this fast. What I mean is, every time Orthodoxy has encountered a new culture it has found and redeemed or fulfilled those elements of the culture which are true. In the past, Orthodoxy’s encounters have been with pagan cultures. We of the OCA and other jurisdictions working here in the mission field of the Americas as well as those working in other nations with previous Christian backgrounds are confronted with a new dilemna. If Orthodoxy has always found truth in the non-Christian cultures it confronts, how much more so should we be able to find truth here? If we can redeem the corrunpted truth of the non-believer, why can we not do so with the flawed understandings and practices of our Western brethren?

    As long as I’m being argumentative…would you also suggest we ditch the German tradition of the Christmas tree? It seems to me that the Advent wreath would be emminently more suitable to the Christian home, without the American commercialization of the tree, and therefore a more obvious symbol of our piety. (For instance Wal-Mart has hundreds of Christmas trees but I could not find a single purple taper.)

  7. basil Says:

    You are correct about Orthodoxy blessing traditions that are good and true in cultures it encounters. You have evaded my questions about the Advent Wreath: 4+1 or 6+1?

    If 4+1, how do we properly celebrate the first two Sundays while fashioning an appropriate explanation for why we have only four canldes? Those are not rhetorical questions.

    If 6+1, I object on aesthetic and sentimental grounds. The Advent Wreath is pretty, and I like it the way it is. A six-candled wreath looks like a genetic misfit.

    The tree is not an Advent tradition; it is a Christmas tradition. Besides the old issue of it being of German pagan origin, I fail to see how it is incompatible with the celebration of Christmas in the extreme manner I have shown for Advent’s incompatibility and sheer difference from the Christmas fast.

    My specific question also remains unanswered: The seasons are different. Why should we call the Christmas fast “Advent”? It sounds like you’re saying we can bless Advent, but I’m saying that the Christmas fast and Advent are too different, one must choose one over the other. I wonder what Western Rite parishes do?

  8. basil Says:

    Tabitha, to answer your first question also: That is a close enough paraphrase. The cycle of feasts dedicated to the Virgin Mary (the “Marian cycle”) provides a human-but-not-in-the-sense-of-invented-by-man-but-in-the-sense-of-man-as-the-subject context, like quotation marks or bookends (“anthropical envelope”) for the cycle of feasts dedicated to the Lord (the “Dominical cycle”). These bookmarks give us a way of looking at and understanding (“lens”) the enfleshment of God (the “Incarnation”) by relating it to the understanding of our salvation (“soteriological context”).

    Sorry. Professional vocabulary compresses thought, making it easier to express complex ideas in a short space. Unfortunately, it also excludes those without the requisite experience in the literature. (I am most certainly not a “theological professional” — I just know the jargon.) I forgot that Pete would not be the only one reading my response to his question.

    Either that, or I’ve been reading too much Pontifications lately.

  9. Tabitha Says:

    I’m afraid on the subject of how Christmas and Advent differ, I must remain mute. I never even saw an Advent wreath until I had reached my majority. Words like Advent and Lent did not enter my vocabulary until college! Given your and James’ objections, I must now assume that the two serve vastly different purposes. I had thought they were both seasons of preparation for the Nativity. I may look it up and see if I can’t educate myself.

    As for the 4+1 vs. 6+1 question, I don’t understand your objection to the increase of candles. 6 is just as symmetrical as 4 and provides more light which, in my mind at least, is prettier. I always thought that a 4 candle wreath looked kind of empty. Besides, you entirely left out the option that was given to us by, I believe, the Orthodox Christian Education Commission: 7 purple + 1 white. There are 6 candles for the 6 Sundays. The 7th, or rather 1st, is lit on the first night of the fast. I don’t know why they departed from the 1 candle per Sunday tradition, but I like the #7, it’s used so much in the Bible that it kind of feels right. I admit that it was difficult to uniformly space 7 candles, but I think I did a pretty good job. After all, a circle can be divided into any number of equal portions without becoming unbalanced. There is no midpoint to be concerned with.

    The first candle represents Repentance, we always begin a fast with repentance. The second candle is for the Theotokos as this is usually the Sunday closest to her Entry into the Temple. The third is for Giving Thanks to God (which contectualizes our American feastday). The fourth is for Prophecy, esp. those of the Messiah. The fifth is for Bethlehem/the Incarnation. The sixth is for the Angels who tell of Christ’s coming and His return. The seventh is for the Shepherds who saw, believed and spread the word. The white candle is, of course, the Christ candle. It is lit on Christmas Day and represents the Light of the World. The wreath speaks of God’s unending love. The greenery tells of eternal life. The purple candles represent Christ’s royalty and our humility/repentance (purple is the lenten color afterall). The white candle in the center speaks of Christ’s purity/ perfection.

    I suppose another option which might help separate the Nativity Fast from Advent would be to abandon the shape of a wreath in favor of a menorrah-like candleabra. Of course, for that I would recommend the 6+1 formula for reasons of balance. I’ll leave the redistribution of what the candles represent to more theologically astute heads than mine.

    As for our family, I find the Nativity Wreath to be a very helpful, child-friendly tradition. As we increase our fasting, so are we to increase our prayer. This is one way to increase our children’s prayer time without increasing frustration with the whole process. They eagerly recite what each candle means. They love watching the light increase as we approach the Feast. They have to pay attention during prayers if they want their turn to blow out the candles. I think it makes an attractive addition to our home. For a time, it is our only Christmas decoration and helps distract the kids from putting up the tree (which so many families do even before Thanksgiving).

    Speaking of kids, I should go be “mom” for a while. Take care and congratulations on your promotion.

  10. basil Says:

    Well, Advent and the fast (the “Christmas fast” or the “Nativity fast”) are supposed to serve the same purpose. That is not what is being questioned here. That they are entirely different in terms of expression is what is key here.

    For one who grew up with Advent, the Christmas fast is very different. Different enough that I don’t want to call it by the same name.

    I have very fond memories of Advent. The Christmas fast, by comparison, is very sparse and austere. It doesn’t have much in the way of liturgical celebration, except for the canon in Matins — which I’ve never seen done in a parish setting.

    I grew up with the Advent wreath as a family tradition. Don’t change it. Use it or don’t. For one who did not grow up with it, it may seem malleable: Tweak it and it’ll be Orthodox. For one who loved it fondly as a child, the six (or SEVEN?) candle wreath is like a dog with extra limbs. It’s a monstrosity. Perhaps this is why cradle-O’s get so bent out of shape when converts try to Americanize their traditions.

    The mangled quasi-Advent wreaths with more than four candles, especially if we try to make up symbols for the candles — as if the wreath did not already have its own symbolism — strike me as very like Kwanzaa: Entirely made up and phony. They do not have the feel of timeless tradition but of “we can invent a holiday tradition.”

    On how Advent differs from the Christmas season proper: Advent prepares for Christmas, just as Lent prepares for Easter. That is how they differ.

    The Christmas tree is properly a Christmas decoration. The Advent wreath is an Advent decoration; the gradual lighting of the candles prepares us for the coming feast. Once all of the candles are lit, we know it has arrived.

    Tradtionally, the Christmas tree was put up on Christmas eve. If you look at many of the movies and cartoons from the first part of the twentieth century — not even a hundred years ago — you will see that Christmas eve was still the norm for putting up the tree. The songs from that era (the “classics” or the “standards”) also reflect this.

    In Church, Advent hymns are solemn, sometimes in minor, and they look forward to the coming and coming again of Christ. In liturgical tradtions, Christmas hymns would NEVER be sung before Christmas, and Advent hymns would not be sung after.

  11. Tabitha Says:

    OK Basil, now I am really confused. You describe Advent as solemn, looking forward to the coming(s) of Christ. How is that different from the Nativity fast? I know that the fasting season and the Christmas season are different. The lack of difference in our culture bothers me more every year. What I don’t understand is what part of Advent are you objecting to?

    It seems to me that our culture lost something monumental when it lost Advent. I never even knew about it until I began learning the Nativity Fast. As far as I can tell the Eastern Nativity Fast is longer and more rigorous than the Western Advent in much the same way that Eastern Great & Holy Lent is longer and more rigorous than Western Lent (even before Vatican II). All that remains now of Advent and Lent in the West is a shell as far as I can see. Admittedly, I don’t know much about these traditions in the past or the present. I’m just stating the little I see in the world around me.

    So again, I ask just what are you objecting to because your message is not getting through to me. Are you objecting to using the Western name when referring to the Eastern fast? That could certainly be confusing and misleading. No argument there. Are you objecting to incorporating Western traditions in a manner which makes them consistent with Eastern tradition? If so, I really don’t understand you at all. Of course the first generation finds a change to be strange. I find all of Orthodoxy to be strange in that sense. But it is true and good and right. And my children will not think it is strange at all. In one short generation Orthodoxy will be their norm and (perhaps) a Nativity wreath will be a new and honored tradition. The first generation to come to Orthodoxy (or anything else for that matter) will always find it different from their childhood memories. We accept that feeling of difference as part of the work of the legacy we leave for the generations that will follow.

  12. basil Says:

    What I am objecting to is equating Advent with the fast. They are not the same. Trying to merge them results in a chimera — a beastly monster made up of grotesquely disparate parts. Advent has not been totally lost; “high church” liturgical tradtions — Anglicans, Lutherans, Roman Catholics — continue to observe it. “Low church” traditions have abandoned it as they have abandoned Lent and most of the calendar. For someone from a high church background, the Christmas fast is not a regaining of Advent, it is its own tradition.

    The Eastern Churches have their own distinctive genius, as do the Western Churches.

    Let me make it clear: What I don’t understand is what part of Advent are you objecting to? I do not object to Advent. I love Advent. I love the Advent Wreath (the real Advent Wreath).

    The Christmas fast I’m a little less gung-ho about. If it were up to my own personal desire, I’d rather just do Advent and leave the spiritual weight-lifting to the monks.

    What I’m objecting to here is:

    1. Calling by the name of “Advent” the Christmas fast (the “Nativity fast,” “Winter Lent,” whatever). It is not Advent. It possesses nothing of the character of Advent. The original article is a little dry on memorable details. There is a lightness in the air during Advent; a festive solemnity. An expectation of something wonderful…. Greens in the church, lights, pointsettias, the purple, rose, and white candles of the wreath at the front of the church, center stage. Hymns of expectation. The Christmas fast is mostly church life as usual, less meat and dairy, up until the last two weeks. Unless you live in a monastery. I do not. Even so, the Christmas fast in an Eastern monastery does not look at all like Advent in a Western monastery — I’m supposing, since I’ve experience neither season in either setting.

    2. Trying observe the fast as Orthodox while picking and choosing from the “smorgasbord” of Western liturgical tradition. In a way, this comes from the same place that my objection to the “Western Rite” comes from. It isn’t really a rite than any Western saint would really recognize, because it has all of these Eastern liturgical doo-dads tacked on to it. The Christmas fast with Western doo-dads tacked on is pretty tacky, too.

    Think about the story of Frankenstein’s monster. The body parts that were brought to life belonged to someone. I feel like someone who has lost a grandmother being presented with Frankenstein’s monster and told, “THIS is your grandmother.” I’m sorry, that’s not true. I remember my grandmother, and she was not like this. I will not call that thing my grandmother. Nor will I celebrate the odd mixture of her body parts with something else to produce a monster. Yes, the metaphor is grotesque. That’s the point.

    Also, some of it may also be that Archpriest D keeps calling it Advent, but I see nothing different at all. The only thing different is that he keeps reminding us to fast. I guess that might tell you something about my Christmas fast this year. I’m getting to fast from all of the Adventery that we’ve always tacked on to the fast. I’m not very happy about it, either. Yet it does seem pretty telling about how Orthodoxy views the fast, versus how Americans view Advent. No, I would say I’m missing Advent pretty badly right now. This would have been the first week of Advent, by the way.

  13. basil Says:

    You know, as I think about it, perhaps the answer is just to do both, whole and entire. Obviously, we won’t do Advent in the Church. But in our own homes, in our private piety, do Advent as its own pious practice. Not trying mix the two; just let them exist side by side in our hearts on parallel paths.

  14. Josh Says:

    Glad you asked. I’ve been stewing on this one for a while now. I don’t have a specific answer for you, just my thoughts. Therapeutic blogging.

    The Advent wreath is something of which I have very fond Childhood memories. We always had a wreath in our home. Each lit candle in the wreath means you are one week closer to Christmas, and Christmas equals presents. Anticipation.

    In the years before we transitioned into the O.C.A., we had already been doing the eastern Nativity fast in conjunction with Advent and the Advent wreath. That didn’t really bother me back then. Hey, we were eclectic.

    Then, the transition into the O.C.A. When the time came for the Nativity fast, someone pulled out the big Advent wreath at St. John’s and put it up next to the iconostasis. For the first time, I kind of thought, “wait, our preparation time is six weeks, and the readings don’t really focus on the angles and the shepherds like they used to.� I decided that it was just one of those things that had sentimental value and would probably fade away with time.

    What made the situation weirder for me was a conversation I had with one of the ladies who had chosen to continue on with the E.O.C. She inquired as to what we were doing liturgically this year for advent (specifically, about the conflicting customs), and then informed me that their decision was to not start their Nativity fast until western Advent had begun. Sigh…

    Anyway, the old wooden Advent wreath at St. John’s broke one of its legs sometime last year, and I thought, “Good… we’re liberated from that conflict of traditions.�
    But no, someone went and bought a new shiny brass Advent wreath and put it up front next to the iconostasis last week. When I saw it, I caught myself thinking, “dangâ€? – which I wish was not the case, but it is.

    Personally, I think that creating a six-candle wreath would just add to the confusion. For now, I will accept the fact that we live in a less than perfect situation and submit to what my priest deems most pastoral.

    As for the Western Rite, I’m pretty sure that they do Advent – that’s there thing, baptizing the culture. Saint Mark’s out in Denver posts their bulletin/calendar on their home page and it shows them using a lot of western Christian dates – Nov. 1st as All Saints Day, and so on. It doesn’t make for an absolutely perfect world, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world.

  15. Karl Thienes Says:

    “perhaps the answer is just to do both, whole and entire…”

    That’s what we do in my family.

  16. basil Says:

    Josh, your thoughts are helpful and fascinating. Thank you.

    Karl, that’s very interesting. (And here I thought I was being original. :-o) It seems like that would bring appropriate honor to both traditions without trying to merge them together.

  17. sockmonk Says:

    Man, hearing everyone wax sentimental about their childhood evangelical experiences makes me feel kind of strange. Sure I have some good memories, but I honestly can’t think of an element of practice I had growing up that is either superflous now, or has a better replacement in Orthodoxy. Maybe it’s partly a result of all the church-hopping we did. Our Lutheran church had an advent wreath, but I don’t think we ever had one in our home, except maybe as a brief experiment one year.

    Advent is definitely something other than the Fast of the Nativity. I don’t see the value in trying to bring it into a parish if it’s not already there; if it is there like in Josh’s case, it definitely becomes a “priest’s discretion” kind of issue. I see lots of room for variation within people’s homes.

  18. alana Says:

    If it were entirely up to me, (I’m such a scrooge), everything would go away and never come back. I like the idea of no tree until christmas eve. Sounds good to me, but then I’d be putting up the tree AND making food on the same day. Blech. I also like the idea of restricting Christmas gifts to what fits in a stocking…but there I go again. That’s because I’m the one who does all the shopping.

    Personally, the way I always saw the advent wreath, was as yet another boring liturgical toy that made my parents a bit weepy and made church last a little longer. As an adult it was just yet another THING to have cluttering up my too small space. (Dirth of flat spaces). No advent wreath here. It makes it easier that I can sort of consign all the happy memories to another continent and be well parted from it.

    For that reason, I like the Nativity Fast. Now, if I could just convince the rest of the world not to have Christmas parties in early December….;-)

    But to the point of the blog post….I totally agree with basil.

  19. Tabitha Says:

    I agree with Alana about the tree. Putting it up on Christmas Eve would just take too much time away from other things that need to occur, like going to prayers and preparing to break the fast. Ideally, the whole family would work together in joyous anticipation and happy memories as we decorated the tree. In reality, its a lot of work and the DH and kids drop out before its done. It usually takes a couple of days unless I am willing to do it myself, which isn’t half as much fun (for me at least). I suppose it will be easier as the kids get older (and taller and more coordinated). But that leaves me with no truly satisfactory answer of when to put it up. So far we’ve begun putting it up on St. Nicholas’ Day or Eve depending on the day of the week. We begin taking it down on Theophany, one month later. It’s not perfect, but it more or less works. And it gives the children something special to look forward to in connection with St. Nicholas.

  20. Gideon Says:

    Interesting discussion. This Nativity I have been noticing more of the daily stuff. Like when we remeber the different Apostles and Old Testament Prophets. I hadn’t even thought about Advent or the Advent Wreath until someone mentioned this post to me the other day.