One way of thinking about its purpose and meaning is to take each letter of the word, a-d-v-e-n-t, and let it represent a theme or aspect of this season. So let us try this method.
A – Arrival
During the season of Advent the Church of Christ joins the remnant of Israel (such as Simeon & Anna) through liturgy in preparing for the Arrival of the Messiah, the Son of David & the Son of God, even Jesus, Son of Mary. Further, the Church joins Israel in listening to John the Baptist, who prepared the way of the Messiah.
Also, during the season of Advent the Church of Christ as the Bride of Christ looks for his Return to earth, his Arrival as the Lord of lords and King of kings to raise the dead, judge the nations and inaugurate the kingdom of God.
So the Church prays on Advent III
“O Lord Jesu Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before thee: Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise turn so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world, we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.”
D -- Devotion
The four weeks of Advent provide the possibility of a period of intense and deep Devotion both in the public liturgy of the Church and in personal times of prayer and meditation. This consecration to walking with God in humility and obedience is summed up in the Collect for the last of the four Sundays:
O LORD, raise up (we pray thee) thy power, and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let
and hindered in running the race that is set before us, thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us; through the satisfaction of thy Son our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be honour and glory, world without end. Amen.
The Collect is addressed to God, the Father, and it is an earnest request that he will gather up his power and descend to his people (by the Holy Ghost) in order to help, succour and sustain them in the race they are running in their earthly pilgrimage towards the goal & fullness of the kingdom of heaven (see Hebrews 12:1).
In making this petition, God’s people recognize that due to their sins of omission and commission they have failed to run in God’s grace as gracefully and swiftly as they are called to do and ought to have done. Thus they look to the Father to provide them through his Son and by his Spirit, and in grace and mercy, the help they need. In particular they look to the “satisfaction of thy Son”, to his perfect obedience of the Father in his life and in his death, as the basis for asking for divine mercy and assistance (i.e., to his active and passive obedience).
If God’s people are to live as those who expect the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, then they need not only to watch and pray but also to live as the obedient and faithful servants of God, engaged daily in his service and running the race that is set before them. This requires true Devotion!
V. Volition (the act of willing or resolving)
God is merciful and gives us grace but we have to be willing to receive that grace and to commit ourselves to his will and purpose. The Devotion of Advent requires definition Volition! But this we prayed for in the week before Advent: “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people…”
The season of Advent may be viewed as a short Lent as a time when strict discipline over the body through Fasting is one means of deepening awareness of God and devotion to him. The colour for this season, like Lent, is purple pointing to asceticism and the words of the Advent Collect, “Give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness” also suggest the need for discipline & Fasting. Further, it is possible for four weeks to omit “Gloria in Excelsis” from the Eucharist as a sign of liturgical asceticism – but to do this without developing the interior Devotion of asceticism is to miss out!
Yet Volition, the commitment of the will resolved to do what God requires and to please him, is the real thing here! That is, the will as it is graciously turned towards the Lord to obey him and to do his bidding.
E – Expectancy
As the righteous remnant in Israel waited for the Messiah in hopeful expectancy, so Christian worshippers in the Liturgy throughout Advent grow in expectancy for the arrival of the Son of God Incarnate. And their expectancy is joyfully fulfilled at the first service of Christmas as either they hear the words of the angel first spoken to the shepherds: “To you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord,” or the majestic words of John 1, “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth…”
Further, liturgically Expectancy is communicated by the great “O’s” used during the last week of Advent.
O WISDOM, that camest out of the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to another, firmly and gently ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of understanding.
O ADONAI, Captain of the house of Israel, who didst appear to Moses in the flame of the burning bush, and gavest him the law on Sinai: Come and deliver us with thine outsretched arm.
O ROOT OF JESSE, who standest for an ensign of the people, before whom kings shall shut their mouths, to whom the nations shall seek: Come and deliver us and tarry not.
O KEY OF DAVID, Sceptre of the house of Israel, who openest and no man shutteth, and shuttest and not man openeth; Come and bring forth out of the prison-house him that is bound.
O DAY-SPRING FROM ON HIGH, Brightness of Eternal Light, and Sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
O KING OF NATIONS, thou for whom they long, the Cornerstone that makest them both one: Come and save thy creatures whom thou didst fashion from the dust of the earth.
O EMMANUEL, our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.
N – Narrative
The Scripture passages, the Bible narrative, read, heard and pondered during Advent are most important. In the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, the Book of Isaiah the Prophet is prominent and is read extensively throughout the four weeks as the Old Testament Lesson. In this book, not only are there many passages addressed to ancient Israel but there are also prophecies that look into the future to proclaim the arrival of the Messiah, the nature of his kingdom, his exaltation through suffering, and the triumph of his cause.
The Anglican Collect for Advent II refers to this relation to Holy Scripture:
“Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark,learn and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.”
T – Thanksgiving
Though there is a strong element of penitence accompanying the fasting and asceticism in Advent, there is a stronger element of Thanksgiving! For God is praised and thanked for his saving deeds and his inspired words recorded in the Old Testament, all of which point to their climax in the arrival of the Messiah, the Saviour, who came to “fulfil the Law and the Prophets.” There is celebration of God’s mighty salvation experienced by the Israelites and there is anticipation of the even mightier salvation wrought in the Lord Jesus Christ.
And of course the meaning of the word, “Eucharist”, is “Thanksgiving” and thus in the Sacrament each week there is profound thanksgiving offered to the Father through the Son and with the Holy Spirit.
The Advent Collect to be used throughout the four weeks
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon M.A., D.Phil. (Oxon.)