The early church celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus regularly and over time this remembrance combined with the regular breaking of the bread to become what we now know as the Eucharist. Nevertheless, Passover provided the opportunity to more specifically remember the events surrounding the passion and resurrection of Jesus every year. Soon an extended time of fasting became common before this time of remembering. Today this time of fasting is known as Lent.
In contrast, the annual remembrance of the incarnation of Christ only became commonplace in the 4th century A.D., once Christianity became the major religion in the Roman Empire. In the 5th century A.D. the custom of fasting before Christmas was introduced in analogy to the Lenten fast. In the Diocese of Tours it was customary to observe this fast from St Martin’s day (11th of November) until Christmas. This “Lent of St Martin” became more common across Europe. Over time this fast was shortened to four weeks and the focus was moved from the fasting to a time of preparation for the coming of Christ. This included remembering the Old Testament anticipation of the coming king, the Messiah, and then also the New Testament expectation of the return of Jesus, the revealed Messiah. Through that the season of Advent the Church focussed again more on the Scriptural basis of its hopes. That also allowed it to recover early Church tradition that was still infused with the ancient longing for redemption. It seems that’s why many Advent hymns still retain the old plainsong melodies.
In some Reformation churches a focus on the reflective season of Advent also helped to take the mind off the somewhat rowdy celebrations of Saint Nicholas and other saints popular in Catholic areas. And so in the northern hemisphere a sense of reflective Advent and Christmas developed. Maybe we can never really mirror that in the summer of the southern hemisphere. Nevertheless, some quiet and reflection is still valuable, particularly at this time of the year. For over a century the reflective nature of Advent has stood in contrast with the increasing commercialism of Christmas around the world. Instead of waiting for Christmas in anticipation, Christmas is used earlier and earlier as a marketing tool. At a time when we want everything now, Advent in contrast reminds us about the value of waiting, of hoping and of remembering.