Even as church members participate in the annual Advent rites, some may not be aware of the long history of these religious practices.
"Advent is from the Latin, which means arrival," said Michael Williams, professor of comparative Religion and Near Eastern Languages at the University of Washington.
"This language of an arrival eventually begins to be attached to the Christmas season," he said.
Christmas as we think of it began to be practiced in the fourth century, at least as far as texts surviving from the early centuries of Christianity indicate, Williams said.
By that time, there was a practice of expectantly waiting, he said, with some historic sources talking about the practices apparently being modeled after Lenten traditions with a period of fasting and contemplation.
A council of about a dozen bishops met in Saragossa, Spain in 380, specifying a period of about three weeks before Epiphany, which celebrates the recognition of Christ's divine nature.
Everyone was to gather in a church as well as observe some periods of fasting and prayer. "The interesting thing about this is the context for this... was to ward off heresy," Williams said.
The idea was to have people gather in a public way, he said. At the time there was a well-known man engaged in interpretations of scripture and the Christian faith outside the direct control of the bishop, he said.
"The admonition to observe a predecessor of Advent was to make sure everybody gathered at the church for the celebration there," Williams said.
The theme of light has long been associated with Christmas, he said. "It's no accident that the dating of Jesus' birth was placed around the time of the winter solstice -- the beginning of light."
Some historic sources indicate that Jesus' birth initially may have been celebrated in the spring, but that later changed to occur near the winter solstice.
"It's a beautiful theme and the beginning of the next solar year," Williams said. "That's kind of a time to symbolically celebrate this entrance or arrival into human experience of the savior in the Christian tradition."
Over the centuries, Advent has taken on a variety of rich traditions.
By the 12th Century, Advent practices in Western Christianity had evolved to be more like what they are today, with a four-week period with specific prayers and readings, Williams said.
Yet even in modern times, Advent practices vary. Eastern Orthodox congregations, for example, have traditions about what's to be eaten on certain days and not others, Williams said.
In the Armenian Orthodox Church, the main religious event remains Epiphany on Jan. 6, which celebrates the recognition of Christ's divine nature.
The Rev. Dwight Schultz, the pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Everett, said his Advent sermons are discussing the themes of hope, promise, joy and peace.
"At the very beginning, God promised Adam and Eve he would send a savior," Schultz said. Advent is a reminder that Christ is coming back "and we need to be ready for him," he said.
Faith is demonstrated by what happens outside the church doors, he said. "When you walk out those doors, that's where your Christian faith really starts."
"It's how are we engaged in our community. Faith is something that I have to do, to go down and help my neighbor."
Faith drives you to do something, he said. "It should come from the heart and willingly. That's what Christians are supposed to do."
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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