ADVENT AND CHRISTMAS
To fulfill the mission of “spreading the knowledge of him everywhere, like an aroma” (2 Cor 2:14), the Church has divided the year into parts—called liturgical seasons—where each part has a big feast as a reference point.
The year is so marked by a succession of festivals that are meant to make us contemplate, one by one, all the aspects of the mystery of Christ “from the Incarnation to the Nativity until the Ascension, to Pentecost and to the waiting for the blessed hope of the return of the Lord” (SC 102).
Christmas and Advent
As civil year begins on January 1, the liturgical season follows another calendar. It starts with the first Sunday of Advent. It seems logical, in fact, that the events of the life of a character are presented from the day of his birth.
But it was not so from the beginnings of the Church. In the first century Christians had no other feast outside of the weekly celebration of the resurrection of the Lord. On the first day of the week—which until Constantine continued to be called the day of the sun and was a working day—they used to meet to hear the word of God, to celebrate the Eucharist and, in the early years, to share a meal. Then they would go back to their homes, bidding each other goodbye, until they meet again the following Sunday.
Not many years passed and the Church felt the need to dedicate a day for the commemoration of the culminating events of the life of Jesus, and for this Easter was instituted. Halfway the second century this feast has already spread in all the Christian communities. However, a day to celebrate the resurrection of Christ seemed not enough; it was thought then to prolong the joy of this feast for seven weeks, the 50 days of Pentecost.
The celebration of Christmas came in the Christian calendar much later. In 354 A.D. December 25 was set to commemorate the birth of Jesus. Obviously no document of the registry office of Nazareth was found—we know neither the exact date nor the exact year of Jesus’ birth. The choice comes from the fact that on this day the winter solstice and the approach of spring was celebrated in Rome. It was a festival celebrated with irrepressible joy because the sun was beginning to shine.
In the first centuries the Church used to reinterpret, rather than suppress, the rites and pagan ceremonies. So it was that the Christians, instead of banning crusades against the licentiousness of the Saturnalia, changed the name and meaning of the feast of the unconquered sun. They said: Jesus “comes from on high as a rising sun, shining on those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Lk 1:79); he is “the true light that enlightens everyone” (Jn 1:9) and “the radiant Morning Star” (Rev 22:16).
The artist who made the first Christian mosaic in Rome understood it—the mausoleum of the Julii, in the cemetery of the Vatican (250 A.D.)—which depicts Christ on the chariot of the sun.
Around the year 600 A.D., Christians believed that the celebration of Christmas was to be preceded by a time of preparation. Thus the Sundays of Advent were born. It was decided, therefore, to begin the liturgical year with the first of these Sundays, at the end of November or early December.