At first Advent was a period of Parousia with Christmas signalling the Second Coming of Christ. Later it became a period set aside for peace when warring and feuding was strictly prohibited. Signalled by the Triumphant Coming of Christ and his earthly representative, the King heralded a new worldly peace
In 380 the council of Saragossa stipulated that Christians should go to church every day from the 17th of December until Theophany on the 6th of January. Later, around 480 Perpetuus of Tours prescribed fasting on every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 11/11 (the day of St. Martin). A decision, which councils in the 6th century continued to decree. Thus – in 581 – the Synod of Mac decreed a 40-day fast leading from St. Martin and up until Christmas. Although the evidence is slight, the general opinion is that the stipulation of fasting was moulded over Lent with Epiphany designated as a proper time for baptism.
Later – in the Roman context – the number of Sundays were reduced, and Advent was turned into a period of “waiting” and “preparation for Christ”. During this period and probably inspired by the Columban monks, Advent gained a certain whiff of parousia. Not only did Advent herald the birth of Christ, but it also brought tidings about the Second Coming of Christ. Hence the Advent sermon, which Gregory the Great preached in Old St. Peter around 591 – 2 was delivered on this text from Luke:
And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh. And he spake to them a parable; Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; When they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away. And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares. For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man. And in the day time he was teaching in the temple; and at night he went out, and abode in the mount that is called the mount of Olives. And all the people came early in the morning to him in the temple, for to hear him.
(Luke 21.25 – 38, King James Version)
Gregory the Great operated with only three Sundays in Advent. This procedure, though, was generally amended in the 7th century when the outline of the common lectionary became less fuzzy and four seems to have become the norm in Rome. At least this was the case in the end of the 7th century when major liturgical work was instigated, which worked out not only the proper lectionary but also the sacramentary and antiphoner. Around 750 the celebration – if not meaning – of the period of Advent had thus been determined. At this point, the period had been codified to encompass four Sundays, and the texts had been slightly shifted. Now the Joyful and Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem opened up the festive season, while Luke 21 was relegated to the second Sunday, thus sending a rather mixed message to the congregations and members of the religious communities. In 2000 the late James McKinnon forcefully argued that this work was carried out in Rome and began with the careful unfolding of the proper liturgies of the Mass proper during Advent. He called his book ‘The Advent Project’.
Advent 993 – 1038
However, in 993 Christmas fell on a Monday. Such happens from time to time and means that the four Sundays in Advent get squeezed into a three-week-period with Christmas Eve falling on the fourth Sunday. In 993 this gave rise to some confusion as some religious institutions “wrongfully” pushed back their calendar. Thus the monastic community at Fleury celebrated the first Sunday in Advent on the 3rd of December, while the Canons in Orleans – a mere 40 km to the West – had celebrated it a week earlier. This misorder would not have been that important, had the two religious institutions not decided to meet for a joint celebration of the entombment of St. Benedict on the 6th of December. As these festivities took place in Fleury, the monks began to celebrate Mass according to their calendar, which stipulated that they should use the liturgy for Advent Sunday, as they were still in this octave. However, soon after the joint celebration began, muttering broke out among the guests from Orleans (who had at that point moved on to the next octave). It soon turned into a petty row, of which the contestants decided to make the Bishop arbiter. A council was duly called. In the end, the position of the monks at Fleury won the day. Exultingly they were able to claim that “If there is one faith and one baptism, may there also be a single unanimity in the church” (quoted from: Parkes 2014, p. 187, p. 186)
Unfortunately, we may safely conclude that even if liturgical anarchy was not quite as rampant as it had earlier been, univocal peace had not broken out. The liturgical difference was a fact of life, writes Henry Parkes in his recent study on 10th century iturgy, where he also recounts the story above.
Thus, despite the efforts of the church, variability continued to be the order of the day in the 10th century. However, this changed in the 11th century when the interested parties began once more to convene councils in order to create harmony inside the church. The crisis of Advent came to signal these new efforts, which worked themselves out in a series of disputes, quarrels and settlements, which were later advertised through the media of canon law. Part of these deliberations was seeking customary refuge in the patristic writings.
“Whenever we do not fully agree in the usage of an ecclesiastical ordo, we should hasten back to the council of teachers through whom, as scripture testifies with divine wisdom, “the depths of the rivers has searche, and the hidden things he has brought forth to light [Job 28.11]. Likewise, as the law-giver forwarnss ‘Ask the father, and he will declare to thee: thy elders and they will tell thee’ [Deuteronomy 32.7].
(From: Parkes 2014, p. 187)
Then, in 1038 Christmas once more fell on a Monday. This year Emperor Conrad II and his son Henry turned up on Sunday the 26th of November in Strasbourg Cathedral to discover Bishop William and his clerics celebrating the first Sunday of advent, even though it was not due until next week. The following week, this resulted in the Emperor and his retinue moving on to his newly founded abbey, Limburg an der Hardt. Here the feast was celebrated according to the “correct” (or at least ancient calendar). At this feast bishops from Worms, Speyer, Verona, Eichstätt and Hildesheim were present together with the dean and perhaps the bishop from Mainz. Here the matter was solemnly decided once and for all: the first Sunday in Advent would fall on the fourth Sunday before Christmas day. It appears it took the heavy hand of the Emperor to get the forces liturgically properly aligned.
One reason for getting the day right may have had to do with the fines connected with committing violent acts during specific periods during the year – the original meaning of sacrilege.
Although it was a prominent feature in the early Church councils of the 6th century to call for such a “Truce of God”, it is generally not believed to have been instituted before the turn of the millennium; approximately at same time as the controversy about the calendar broke out. The first time a “truce of God” covering the Lord’s Day was declared seems to have been at the council of Toulouges in AD 1027 in the county of Roussillon. In the 30s and 40s, such truces were developed to encompass a large number of days and seasons. One early example of this is from 1063 when Drogo, bishop of Terouanne, and count Baldwin [of Hainault]established such a truce with the cooperation of the clergy and people of the land:
“You shall also keep this peace every day of the week from the beginning of Advent to the octave of Epiphany and from the beginning of Lent to the octave of Easter, and from the feast of Rogations [the Monday before Ascension Day] to the octave of Pentecost.”
Probably, though, the main reason for the anger of Conrad II may have been the way in which the wrong liturgy hugely embarrassed him. Here came the Emperor before his people, all dressed up and riding into Strasbourg together with his retinue in order to play the significant role of “Christ, the King” arriving in Jerusalem; and – ups! – the city was not correctly attired according to the “Ordines ad regem suscipiendum”.
Although the oldest setting of these Orders seem to be the one found in the Cluniac Consuetudines from the Abbey of Farfa from 1039, the ritual was fairly strict: elements prescribed were the proper dress, the aspersion of the comer, his descent from the horse to kiss the gospels and his censing by the gathered clergy. To this should be added detailed descriptions of the exact order of the processions with crosses, candles, liturgical books etc. (Buc, 2001, p.38 – 44)
Just try to imagine the wrath of an Emperor believing he was gracing Strassbourg with the “Adventus par Excellence” – and then discovering that the clerics in Strassbourg had got the date wrong and he had been invited to a party of divine judgement (Mat 25:31-46); something, which even kings were obliged to suffer. What a bummer!
The Lectionary and its aftermath
In the 11th century, the designated texts to be read on the four Sundays of Advent had long been codified. This codification took place already in the mid 7th century). The designated texts were taken from Matt 21, Luke 21, Matt 11 and John 1 – with variation typically allowed for the exact beginning and end of the pericopes. This status quo continued to until 1570, when the Tridentine lectionary sought to reinvent the tradition of Gregory the Great, such as it might be ascertained from his “40 sermons to the Gospels”. Perhaps this reinvention of tradition sought to reflect the more penitentiary character of his advent-homilies and their general apocalyptical tone. Once more, Europe was in the grips of terror and war. Furthermore, the head to deal a liturgical blow to the Lutherans was obviously on the agenda. Meanwhile, the “new” Lutheran churches continued to use the old – post 7th century – medieval lectionary, which Martin Luther had felt no inclination to change.
Curiously enough the Lutheran Churches in Northern Europe (with the exception of Sweden), have kept faith to the old selection of texts in Year A (most churches operate with several cycles). The Catholic Church, on the other hand, has since 1970 operated with three cycles and selections mixing texts from different traditions (and cycles), thus exhibiting a somewhat weeker link to the original selection of texts from the early Middle Ages.
Another difference is the vibrant tradition of Lutheran psalms written specifically for Advent, which have only tenuous links to the medieval musical tradition, which foundation was laid to in Rome in the late 7th century.
The Advent Project. The Later Seventh-Century Creation of the Roman Mass Proper
By James W. McKinnon
University of California Press 2000
The Making of Liturgy in the Ottonian Church
Cambridge University Press 2015
The Dangers of Ritual. Between early Medieval Texts and Social Scientific Theory.
By Philippe Buc.
Princeton University Press 2001
The Peace and Truce of God in the Eleventh Century
By H. E. J. Cowdrey
In: Past & Present, No. 46, Feb., 1970, pp. 42-67
Die Adventsliturgie im Licht ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung
By Walther Croce
In: Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie, Vol 76, No. 3, 1954, pp. 257 – 296.
Die Macht der Rituale. Symbolik und Herrschaft im Mittelalter
By Gerd Althoff
Darmstadt, Primus Verlag 2003 (2. ed. 2012)
Spektakel der Macht: Rituale im Alten Europa 800-1800
By Gerd Althoff et al.
WBG (Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft) 2009
Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem. From the Palace Chapel in Palermo. Source: Wikipedia