The Christian church is in the midst of Advent right now, which is the season of anticipating the coming of Christ, both as a baby at Christmas and again at His Second Coming. The word “advent” comes from the Latin word “adventus”, which means “coming”.
This observation of Advent has a long history in the Church, stretching back to the 4th century at least, and likely before. So the Celtic Church (and the Roman one) would definitely be observing this important part of the Church calendar during the 7th century, the time that my trilogy is set.
There are some differences between how it was celebrated then and how it is celebrated now, however. First of all, Advent today can encompass a wide range of observances. Some evangelical churches have very little emphasis on Advent, other than the lighting of an Advent candle set in a wreath during the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, with the candles representing hope, peace, love and joy. Sometimes the candles are different colours to distinguish each one, sometimes the candles are purple (the traditional colour of Advent). Some add a fifth candle, in the centre of the wreath, which is the Christ candle, lit on Christmas Eve.
Other, more liturgical churches, have much more emphasis on Advent, incorporating special prayers and Scripture readings into their services. They will often also have special evening services for the last week in December.
Back in the 7th century, Advent was also set aside as a special time. However, their Advent season began earlier than ours does now. They would begin Advent observances on November 15th, which would then mirror the 40 days of Lent. And like Lent, Advent was seen as a time of spiritual preparation. Fasting was a part of the Advent observances, and although this was later dropped by the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches, the Eastern Orthodox still have fasting as part of their Advent observances today. They also still retain the 40 days of Advent.
Advent traditionally had more emphasis on the Second Coming of Christ, and along with fasting involved repentance and dedication to prayer, in order to prepare oneself for Christ’s return.
Another element practiced in the early Church and still today in the Roman Catholic and more liturgical churches is the reciting of the O Antiphons during that last week before Christmas. These are short reflections on the various names of the Messiah found in the prophecies of Isaiah. Those names are Wisdom, Lord, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, King of the Nations, and Emmanuel. So, for example, the first one is Wisdom, and this is the antiphon:
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence. (from Isaiah 11:2-3,: 28:29)
The Emmanuel antiphon is the origin of the carol “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, and it goes like this:
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour: Come and save us, O Lord our God. (Isaiah 7:14)
I love these traditions that connect us with the Christians from all ages past. These prayers and observances are passed down to us in an unbroken line from the beginning of the Church until now. I love to imagine the monks at Lindisfarne on a cold, misty December night, chanting the O Antiphons and reflecting on the Christ who is to come. It’s this intertwining of past and present that is part of what makes this time of year so meaningful.