During the month before Christmas, many Christians commemorate the season of Advent.
Advent means ‘coming,’ and it has been celebrated by the church for more than 1,000 years. It is a tradition with roots deep in the Christian faith.
Many Christian families celebrate Advent with an Advent wreath and the lighting of five candles. Four of the candles represent the four Sundays before Christmas, and one represents Christmas day itself.
Claire and Steve Pfann are the founders of the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, and experts on the early church.
"The celebration of Advent in the church goes back to about the sixth century," Claire explained.
"In the earliest time when they had Advent, however, it was almost entirely focused on the Second Coming,” Steve added, “keeping that moment of singing Christmas carols aside for when Christmas Day itself came."
"And in the Second Coming of the Lord,” Claire said, “there's a theme of both joy and rejoicing, [and] there's also [a theme] of judgment. In particular, the parable of the 10 virgins who are eagerly anticipating the coming of the bridegroom, but who have to watch and be ready, was chosen as a motif for the Advent season."
Hymns also played a big role in the early celebration of Advent.
Claire said, "One of the earliest hymns that was written, from about the ninth century CE or AD, is ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.’ This isn't technically a Christmas carol, but it's an Advent hymn. It's a song that prepares the way for Christmas."
"That full month beforehand -- with their songs and with their liturgies, ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,’” Steve declared, “was not anticipating the coming of the Christ child as much as it was anticipating the Second Coming."
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is filled with Old Testament references to the coming Messiah, and it “is based on Isaiah 7:14,” Claire said. “’Then a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Emmanuel.’ ‘O come, O come, Thou Dayspring from on high’ is based on Malachi, where the Son of Righteousness, the Dayspring, shall arise with healing in His wings. And as you sing, ‘O Come, O Come’ Emmanuel,’ and look to the proof texts in Scripture, you find a very beautiful blending of both word and worship, and music."
Throughout Advent, the focus is on Jesus.
In the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, Advent reminds us of the One who is always with us.
"He's here with us at every moment, in the most unexpected places. In a manger, in a stall in Bethlehem, who would have expected the Messiah?” Claire said. “And as we walk through our daily lives, He's there reaching out with us, walking through each step of the way. And we need, sometimes, just to have the veil of our understanding opened, so that we can see His presence with us -- His coming, His advent in our lives."
Advent looks forward to the time when Jesus will set his feet on the Mount of Olives and enter triumphantly through the Eastern Gate in Jerusalem. Until that time, Christians wait with expectation as the Light of the World resides in their hearts.
"Part of the focus on Advent is to rekindle that excitement,” Claire said, “to rekindle that expectation of Jesus -- who came once to save us from our sins – [and who] will come again in glory and be the King who rules from on high.“
Steve said, "Each one of us, in our own place of loneliness, can cry out to the Father, and say like the early church said again and again, "Maranatha," maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus."