By Father Zach Schaefbauer
According to the Church’s liturgical tradition, the celebration of any major feast of a higher dignity was to be preceded by a fast, otherwise known as a vigil (from the Latin, vigilia, meaning “wakefulness”). The vigil was literally a time of sleeplessness and “watching” for the coming feast. The vigil evening was, therefore, marked with fasting, prayers of atonement and other penitential practices that persisted throughout the night watch.
Although the vigil Mass was considered part of the coming holiday, it was never treated with the same solemnity as the feast day itself. Rather, the liturgical setting took on a more serious character; the Gloria and Alleluia verse were absent, the Mass prayers spoke of repentance, and the music was somber and much simpler. Even the vesture of the priest was affected. In fact, until the liturgical reforms of 1970, the priest was required to wear violet vestments at all vigil Masses, for the color violet signifies a penitential disposition due to its naturally darker hue and subdued tone.
With the dawning of the feast day, however, all penances were cast aside, and the glorious and joyful celebrations of the holy day began. Such was the case for certain privileged feast days in the Church’s calendar.
Nevertheless, our liturgical tradition also attests to the fact that the most solemn feast days in the life of the Church require more than a single day of preparation. Actually, they require an entire season. By the time of St. Gregory the Great in the early 600s, the two highest feasts in the Roman Rite were that of Easter and Christmas. In anticipation of the former, Christians of ancient Rome (from about the middle of the fourth century) maintained roughly a 40-day period of fasting and penance, which today we call the season of Lent. Christmas, however, only gained importance in Rome at a much later date, making the development of the season of Advent and its distinctive characteristics a more complex story.
By the year 336, the Feast of the Nativity garnered universal acceptance in the Roman Church as a feast worthy of commemoration. Yet, this recognition did not immediately place it on the same level as the Lord’s Resurrection. Prior to Christmas attaining special prominence in the life of the Roman Church, the Christians of Rome observed a month-long fast in December, not in anticipation of Christmas, but as a reminder to always keep one’s heart ready for the “advent,” or second coming, of Christ. The reason for this is because both the civil and agricultural years concluded in December. In fact, Dec. 25 was considered the beginning of the new year in Rome since at least the early fourth century.
As the sermons of Pope St. Leo the Great in the mid 400s bear witness, it was only natural that Christians in Rome should see the end of the year as an analogy for the end of time itself, when Christ would return in all his glory to judge the living and the dead. Thus, for several centuries, Roman Christianity maintained two distinct but concurring observances: a month of penance in preparation for the end times and a liturgical feast on the 25th of December in honor of the birth of Jesus Christ. The idea of fasting in explicit preparation for Christmas, however, originated outside of Rome and at a much later date.
The season of Advent—as we know it today—came into existence in Rome during the pontificate of Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century. Thanks to his liturgical genius, the two contending themes of preparation—that of anticipating the end times and that of celebrating Christ’s birth in the flesh—were assimilated into one season of expectation. This explains the dual nature of Advent as evidenced in the liturgy itself. The readings and prayers for the first two weeks of the season proclaim to us the second coming of Christ at the end of time, while the third and fourth weeks speak of his first coming in the flesh and our need to receive him in the present moment.
For Gregory, though, the two intentions are not in opposition but are, in fact, complementary: both comings of Christ demand preparation on our part. Hence, Advent—like Lent and other ancient vigils of the Roman Rite—bears the marks of a penitential season: violet vestments, omission of the Gloria, less frequent use of musical instruments, and the like, alongside our own individual disciplines of fasting and penance.
Advent, therefore, is a season of preparation to receive Christ in whatever way he chooses to come to us. The Christian who empties himself of sin and evil desires through fasting and penance can in turn be filled with either the goodness and grace of the liturgy or with the joys of future glory. For to prepare for Christmas is, simultaneously, to prepare for the advent of Christ at the end of time. We need only to remain vigilant.