In the fifth century, the opening date of the Ecclesiastical year was the feast of the Annunciation which, originally kept in March, was later on transferred to December. " Following what is the practice elsewhere," says the Council of Toledo in 665, " the Annunciation will be kept throughout Spain on the 18th. of December, since at present it often falls in Lent or at Easter." In the tenth century the year began on the First Sunday of Advent, some weeks before Christmas. As early as 380 a Council of Saragossa decreed an eight days' preparation for Christmas. At the Council of Tours (563), Advent is referred to as a liturgical period having its proper rites and forms. In the-Nestorian Liturgy (6th century) Advent lasted for four Sundays, called Sundays of the Annunciation, and in the Ambrosian and Mozarabic liturgies, six were reckoned. In the Roman liturgy we find that, at first, Advent lasted for five weeks. At present it includes four : the First Sunday of Advent is always the Sunday next to St. Andrew's Day, which is kept on November 30.
The joy of beholding the speedy coming of Christ is one of the dominant notes of Advent; restrained at first, but quickly taking free course and rising to the fervour of the Christmas spirit. At the same time the thought of the purification of souls, closely connected with that of the return of Christ, occurs at this time, on every page of Breviary and Missal. Hymns, choice of psalms, the preaching of the prophets and of the forerunner of Christ, the collects of the four Sundays, the oft-repeated versicle: "rectas facite semitas ejus," "Make straight His paths;" all these speak of the necessity of preparing our souls for the approach of our Redeemer in His twofold coming. "Do penance," said our Lord, "for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Ant. Ben. Mon. 4th wk.)
In the Middle Ages a fast was prescribed during Advent known as "the Christmas Lent," when it was even the custom to veil images as at Passiontide. In our time purple vestments are still used as in Lent and the Benedicamus Domino replaces the Ite Missa est.
During Advent the antiphon Alma Redemptoris is sung with its accompanying versicle Angelus Domini, while the second prayer is the collect of the Mass De Beata, chosen on account of the part played by our Lady in the mystery of the Incarnation with which, for the time being, the Church is concerned. For the present, we hear no more the Gloria in Excelsis for that is the angels song of the Nativity, and in this new ecclesiastical year just beginning, it is at Christmas that it must be heard for the first time.
1. The Collect and Gospel of the last Sunday after Pentecost (at a certain time the first of the five Advent Sundays) have kept much of the character of this Season.