by Jose Concepcion
Gnosticism… ever heard of it? What if I were to tell you that this religious system played an integral role in the creation of Advent? Advent is one of the most popular celebrations across all branches of Christianity. Advent is an unmistakable season– the Christmas music begins to play, candles are lit, the Advent calendars come out, along with Advent books on how to make the most of the season. All this movement begs the question, has it always been like this? When and how did this now cherished season of celebration begin?
Before we discuss Gnosticism, we must first look at how the early Christian Church viewed feast and celebrations. Within both Pagan1 (those who worship multiple gods or goddesses) and Jewish customs, there were many yearly feasts and festivals. For example, the people of Israel celebrated the Passover feast2 while Pagans celebrated feasts honoring Vulcan3 and the Festival of the Sun.4 Since those who were saved and brought into the Church during that time came from both Paganism and Judaism, and there were scriptural precedents for the Jewish feasts, the early Church also had an annual cycle of festivals. Over many centuries, the yearly calendar was filled with celebrations of Saints and Martyrs. The early Church calendar cycle (around 350 AD) was focused around three main celebrations: Epiphany (the incarnation), Easter, and Pentecost. These celebrations were “[centered] on the person and work of Jesus Christ, and [were] intended to minister to His glory.”5 As you might have noticed, Advent is not named as a major adherence. Many Christians would rightly say that Advent is centered around Christ, so why was it not named within the first 300 years of Church life?
When looking at the origins of Advent, Church historians agree that no one with certainty can determine when the celebration of Advent was first introduced.6 It is hard for the 21st century person to understand that information did not spread as it does now; many practices and traditions differed slightly from church to church. Therefore, a new celebration would not just pop into existence within the universal Church… especially when the churches in the east and the west went off different calendars! Instead, it seems that the celebration that would later be formally known as “Advent” came into the scene when the churches in the west were fighting off… heresy!7
What was the heresy? It was a gnostic belief whose formal name was Priscillianism. Let’s break that down. Gnosticism was a belief system that operated on a dualist understanding of the world. Dualism was the belief, if simplified, that everything that was physical/flesh was evil, and everything that was Spirit was good. Gnosticism used this foundational understanding of the world, along with its core belief in the “one Spirit God,” to explain various Christian doctrines. This obviously leads to many issues. Gnostics, because they believed that all the physical was evil, attributed all of creation to the work of a Demiurge who was so removed from the “Spirit God” that evil was in him… therefore, the God of the Old Testament was evil.8 We don’t have to go much further to see the blatant issues. However, we will focus on one of the beliefs that gnostic Priscillianism was spreading in northern Spain in the 4th century which was the teaching that Jesus Christ did not actually come in the flesh. Why? He could not have taken on flesh because that would have made him evil. They outright denied the incarnation of Christ; they did not believe in the actual, physical birth of Jesus. A synod (Church meeting) was held at Saragossa in 380 to combat this extremely dangerous heresy. The “fourth canon [of the] prescribes that from the seventeenth of December to the feast of the Epiphany (the incarnation) no one should be permitted to absent himself from church.”9 For during that time there would be constant preaching on the real incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.
In the next 100 years there were various Bishops, St. Maximus of Turin (415-466) and St. Caesarius of Arles (502-542) who gave homilies (teachings) on the preparation before the birth of Christ.10 However, there was no specific instruction given regarding when the preparation was to take place or for how long. Furthermore, Pope Gregory the Great gave a homily on Jan. 6th, 591 which not only refutes Priscillianism, but also speaks of preparation for the Lord’s 1st and 2nd coming. Following this, many teachers began promoting the practice of devoting the four Sundays before Christmas in “preparation for the coming of our Lord in the flesh and for his second coming to the final judgment.”11 Though there are many minor developments after this period, this leads us to the Advent we celebrate now.
That is the history! What can we learn from it? The original purpose of Advent was to fight off a wrong teaching and reinforce a foundational truth of the church; that Jesus Christ took on flesh. Not only that, but that He will again come in His ascended body to judge the world. Why was this so important for the church to defend, so much so that they did not allow people to abstain from Church for several weeks? Because the incarnation is one of the most foundational doctrines of the Christian faith. Without the incarnation, Christianity has no hope. This is because God made it evident that the blood of goats and bulls could not take away sins.12 In order to take away sins, Jesus Christ Himself had to “offer for all time one sacrifice for sins.”13 He was able to take away sins with one sacrifice because He was not only fully God, but He was also fully man (flesh).
Therefore, this Advent season, and all Advent seasons should be for the same purpose: for us Christians, to strengthen our knowledge, love, and faith in the incarnation of our Savior. For those who read this and do not believe, know that Christ extends this once and for all sacrifice for all of those who believe in His life, death and resurrection. The truth is that He will be coming back, as Advent also teaches. How will we respond to His sacrifice and call?
With thankfulness and expectancy,
Jose is a third year at UVA studying Religious Studies.
This article is part of the Duke Crux X UVA Bearings 2021 Advent Series, a collaboration between the two Augustine Collective Organizations.
- “Pagan Definition; Meaning.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Accessed December 10, 2021. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pagan.
- Found in Exodus 23 and 1 Corinthians 5.
- Wong, Henry. “What Festivals Were Celebrated in Ancient Rome?” Rome Tours. Rome Tours, May 18, 2020. https://www.romecitytour.it/blog/what-festivals-were-celebrated-in-ancient-rome/.
- Needham, Nick R. In 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, 158. London: Grace Publications Trust, 2016.
- Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church (The Complete Eight Volumes in One) (p. 1487). Kindle Edition.
- Duchesne, L. Christian Worship: Its Origin and Evolution. A Study of the Latin Liturgy up to the Time of Charlemagne, 260. London: S.P.C.K., 1956.
- A simple definition of heresy is a belief or opinion contrary to the widely accepted, orthodox (right) beliefs of the Church.
- Needham, Nick R. 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, 102–3. London: Grace Publications Trust, 2016.
- Mershman, F. (1907). Advent. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved December 9, 2021 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01165a.htm
- Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church (The Complete Eight Volumes In One) (p. 1493). Kindle Edition.
- Heb 10:4.
- Heb 10:12.