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Advent is the season leading up to Christmas.
Advent is a time of preparation for the great celebration of Christmas. Advent begins on the 4th Sunday before Christmas, which is therefore known as the "First Sunday of Advent" and is often just called "Advent Sunday". Advent Sunday is regarded as the first day of the "Christian Year" when the annual cycle of Christian or Church seasons begins.
To say that Advent is a time of preparation means more than just that it is the time to buy the presents and make the Christmas pudding! It is a time for spiritual preparation for what is one of the most important festivals of the Christian faith - the time when we celebrate that God has come to us in Jesus. It calls for reflection on what Christmas means and for a time of penitence as we prepare ourselves to meet afresh with Jesus.
Advent Sunday is always either the last Sunday of November or the first Sunday of December, depending on which day of the week Christmas itself comes. Advent varies in length; it always has 4 Sundays, but, if Christmas is on a Monday, it lasts only 3 weeks plus a Sunday, while if Christmas is on a Sunday it lasts 4 full weeks.
During Advent we look forward to the time when Jesus will come again, at the end of the age, and also think about those who prepared for the coming of Jesus - the prophets who foretold him, John the Baptist who prepared the people for Jesus' ministry, and Mary, who had to be ready to be his mother! We often use an Advent Wreath as a way of thinking about these things - lighting a candle on the wreath each Sunday as we sing or hear about them. The candles on the wreath are purple, the colour for Advent (see the Colours for different seasons page), except for the one lit on the 3rd Sunday of Advent which is pink. The 3rd Sunday, which used to be called "Gaudete Sunday" (Latin for "rejoicing Sunday") is traditionally a day to turn briefly from the reflection and penitence of the season to joyful anticipation of the coming of Jesus. As Christmas gets nearer we tend to turn our thoughts even more towards the great event and sing some carols, often with a Carol Service on the 3rd or 4th Sunday.
Christmas Day, 25th December, is the day when we celebrate the birth of Jesus (see Luke 2:1-20).
The celebrations usually begin the night or evening before (late on Christmas Eve) with a "midnight" Communion Service, as well as a further service or services on Christmas Day itself. In addition to reading some or all of the Christmas story from Luke's Gospel we also read, in at least one of the services, the opening of John's Gospel (John 1:1-14) which expounds the incarnation (the mystery of God becoming a human being) and so reveals the true nature of the baby Jesus.
If we have been using an Advent Wreath, on Christmas Day we light a fifth candle, a white one in the centre, to signify that the time of preparation in Advent is over and Jesus is born!
Boxing Day, the day after Christmas Day, is a traditional public holiday in many countries but the name has no real Church or Christian significance. The name may have originated from the practice of giving presents, or "Christmas Boxes" to family, friends, staff etc - which was originally done after Christmas. It is also St Stephen's day (the "Feast of Stephen" as in the carol "Good King Wenceslas"), when we remember the life and death of St Stephen, but that has no special connection with Christmas and is just a coincidence.
The Christmas Season is the 12 days from Christmas Day up to the day before the Epiphany.
The Christmas Season - the "Twelve days of Christmas" in the carol of that name - is a time of continued celebration of the birth of Jesus. It normally lasts up to 5th January, the day before the Epiphany, but, if Epiphany is celebrated early (on the Sunday before, see below), the Christmas Season is effectively cut short.
The Epiphany, 6th January, is another occasion when we celebrate the coming of Jesus.
In the churches of the Western world the Epiphany is generally the time we remember and celebrate the visit of the Magi, the wise men from the East (Matthew 2:1-12), who are believed to have come to see the infant Jesus anything up to two years after he was born. It is also a time when we recall that Jesus came, not just for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles, or non-Jews, whom the wise men represent. We celebrate at Epiphany the fact that Jesus came for the whole world, and it is a time to think, not only about Jesus and his birth, but also about the mission of the church to the world and its commission to make disciples of all nations.
However, in the first few centuries of the church's existence, the Epiphany was the only day when Jesus' birth was celebrated, and it was kept as a time of celebration not only of his birth but also of his baptism. It was the feast of the "manifestation of Christ in the world" ("Epiphany" means "revelation" or "manifestation") and of his incarnation (his being "made flesh", or becoming a human being). It was only later that the present feast of Christmas was established as a separate celebration of his birth and, in due course, the Sunday after the Epiphany became the time to remember Jesus' baptism. In some parts of the church, particularly the Eastern (Orthodox) churches, Epiphany remains the main celebration of Jesus' birth.
Epiphany may sometimes be celebrated on the Sunday before 6th January, so that people can attend more easily.
The Epiphany Season lasts from The Epiphany until the Feast of the Presentation on 2nd February (see below).
The Epiphany Season is a time when we continue to think about the coming of Jesus and the themes of The Epiphany, such as the church's mission in the world. As mentioned above, we generally celebrate Jesus' baptism on the first Sunday after the Epiphany.
The end of the Epiphany Season varies between different churches and some finish it sooner or later than the Feast of the Presentation. Seasons of the Spirit usually makes no provision for the Feast of the Presentation and effectively continues the Epiphany Season right up to the start of Lent.
The Feast of the Presentation (Candlemas), 2nd February, marks the end of the Epiphany Season and the "Christmas" group of seasons.
The Feast of the Presentation celebrates the completion of the "birth story" of Jesus when he was presented in the Temple 40 days after his birth, and a sacrifice was offered, in accordance with the Jewish Law. It was also the occasion of the prophecies of Simeon and Anna (see Luke 2:22-40), including Simeon's prayer we now know as the "Nunc Dimittis".
"Nunc Dimittis" is the start of the prayer in Latin. It begins, in traditional English, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace" (Luke 2:29). The prayer is used in our service of Night Prayer (Compline) and sometimes in Evening Prayer.
The Feast of the Presentation is often called "Candlemas" because of the practice of blessing candles, which were then lit and carried into church in procession, that formed part of the traditional worship that day. This symbolised the entry of Christ, the Light of the World, into the Temple. The Presentation is often celebrated on the Sunday before or after 2nd February rather than on the day itself.
Author's note. The material above and on the associated pages has been written with the prime purpose of helping members of Immanuel and St Andrew's to understand church teaching and practice. However, the information given is entirely the responsibility of the the author, David Gray, and does not necessarily reflect the view of all members of the Ministry Team or PCC (Parochial Church Council). Corrections and comments are, of course, welcome!
© Copyright David Gray 2007
Page last updated 18 October 2007.
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