Advent is a season in the liturgical Church calendar that starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas (always falling between 27 November and 3 December) and ends at sunset on Christmas Eve. Its observance in the Church goes back to the fourth century A.D. (first mentioned in writing at the Council of Sargossa in 380 A.D.).
The word Advent is taken from the Latin word adventus (“coming”; “arrival”) which itself was the Latin translation of the New Testament Greek word parousia, which means “coming, advent, being in person.” Parousia is the word used in the original Greek in which the New Testament was written to refer to both the coming of Christ in human flesh and His Second Coming.
The season of Advent, then, is a season of preparation with a dual focus. On the one hand it focuses on our preparation to celebrate Christmas, the birthday of our Savior in the flesh. On the other hand, it focuses on our preparation for His return in glory, majesty, and power on the Last Day. So, it is much more than just a way to countdown the days ‘til Christmas. As a season with a double focus, it reminds us that we live in the time between the two comings of Jesus Christ, between His first coming to accomplish our salvation and His Second Coming when He will make all things new and perfect. As Christians we look back in human history, giving God thanks for what Jesus has accomplished for us, and we look forward to the day when the promises of God will be fulfilled – promises to destroy death forever, to renew all of creation to its original pristine state, and to raise us up in perfected bodies to live with Him for eternity.
The dual nature of Advent is seen in the liturgical lectionary (the calendar of appointed readings for each Sunday in the Church Year). The first two weeks of Advent have readings that focus on the Second Coming of Christ. They focus on His promise to return and our need to always be ready for that return. The last two weeks of the season transition to a focus on Christ’s first Coming at Christmas, with the readings focusing on God’s Old Testament promises to send a Savior and their fulfillment in the birth of Jesus.
In recent decades, many Christians have so focused on Advent as a preparation for Christmas, that the season’s equally important focus on Christ’s return has been lost. But both are important. Advent isn’t just about celebrating God’s in-breaking into human history in the past (Christmas). It is also about looking forward to that day when Christ will bring human history to its final conclusion and usher in our eternal life with Him.
There are many traditions practiced by Christians in their observance of Advent, the most well-known of which include decorating churches and homes with evergreen boughs, the use of Advent wreaths to mark the weeks of Advent, and special music (in the hymns of the Church both focuses of Advent are reflected).
Many, many Christians also privately observe the season by focusing on God’s Word. They use devotional books that contain daily Bible readings and meditations to help focus attention on the “reason for the season.”
If you’d like to observe Advent in this way ask your pastor for resources or look online (here’s a good online resource: https://www.lhm.org/advent).