Many churches lit the first of their Advent candles today (hopefully without needing the fire department!). Even churches averse to liturgical practices find a way to mark the Advent season, if only by marking the days remaining until Christmas.
This is some of the story behind Advent.
The earliest dating of Advent is impossible to determine. The start of Easter in Christian history is far more obviously tied to Passover (albeit with different methods for dating), and Christmas came to be associated with the birth of Christ as a result of it falling during the December Solstice, the darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. The coming of the Light of the World made a lot of sense in so much darkness. Within a few centuries of church history, both Easter and Christmas took on special meaning due to their use in commemorating the life of Jesus.
In the early centuries of the church, Advent almost certainly arose as a result of the fixed dating of Christmas. Once December 25 became Christmas, it was the center of gravity for the later half of the year—a perfect balance to Easter in the first half. In this way, Advent took on significance the same way Lent did: both were preparation for the more significant season on the horizon.
By the fourth century, the first written evidence of Advent is found in modern Spain and Europe (Hispania and Gaul). Probably the earliest official mention of Advent practices comes as the Council of Sargossa (AD 380) met to answer a gnostic-inspired movement called Priscillianism.
The heresy essentially held to a harsh form of dualism—light vs. dark, body vs. soul—so perhaps the celebration of the incarnation made theological sense as a counterbalance to this heresy. The council was not committed to any specific dating of Advent, though, and only suggested people attend church daily between December 17 and 29.
By the fifth and sixth centuries, more firm dating of the Advent season can be found in historical records—as well as Advent sermon series.
Double Meaning of Advent
Unlike modern Advent ceremonies, most celebrations of Advent in history had a twin focus. The Latin word adventus was the translation of the Greek parousia—a word used for both the coming of Christ in human flesh and his Second Coming. Advent, then, always tended to focus on both.
For the first two weeks of Advent, the church would reflect on the Second Coming. Disciples would chasten their hearts, confess sins, and spend time hoping for the quick coming of the Lord. The last two weeks of Advent would then transition to focus on the first parousia, Christ in the manger.
This double meaning in Advent history signals an important reality in the liturgical calendar: Advent and Christmas are never held as a full re-enactment of the life of Christ but point to our place between the Resurrection and Second Coming. Advent and Christmas are not merely about the coming of Jesus, but about everything since the birth of Jesus.
The rise of Advent services today are somewhat unique in Protestant evangelicalism. I cannot think of a single, large-scale controversy over the lighting of candles and reading of Scripture during these weeks. Perhaps this is due to the corporate nature of bearing witness to the commemoration of Jesus’s birth, which fails to raise as many alarms as other traditional practices in the church.
Part of the rise of Advent, too, has been the widespread adoption of Christmas by so many in the West, religious or secular. For many churches, rather than wage a war for Christmas, they find it better to focus instead on the advent of the King of Kings, so lighting candles and reading appropriate passages makes more sense than merely assaulting holiday consumerism. Numerous Advent devotionals, calendars, and homespun methods of marking the season have sprouted up in recent years as a result.
One notable lack in modern Advent celebration, though, is the twin focus of both the Incarnation and the Second Coming. Both of these themes make Advent instructive, not only historically but also in terms of biblical theology. We are not a people who merely look to the one moment God broke into history. We await his coming again in glory, when the King’s reign shall be on earth as it is in heaven.
Edit: I made a short video of this same comment on my YouTube channel for those interested