In the first of our new series of articles for Advent, ‘Light in the darkness’, David Cole explores the distinctive aspects of a Celtic Advent, beginning with the fact that the Celtic season of waiting began halfway through November, rather than at the end…
The lead up to Christmas is a busy time, and we can easily be so focused on our planning that we forget that Christmas and Advent are two different seasons.
Christmas actually starts on Christmas Day (or the night of Christmas Eve) and goes on until Epiphany/Theophany on 6 January. Those are the twelve days of Christmas.
Contrary to popular culture, the period leading up to Christmas Day is not the Christmas season; it is Advent. Advent is a time of active preparation, not of passive waiting. We prepare ourselves to encounter the incarnate Christ, whom we celebrate on Christmas Day.
There are traditionally two start dates for Advent. One is the commercial date, 1 December, when we start our Advent calendars. The other is the western church date, the fourth Sunday before Christmas, which can be at the end of November or the start of December.
However, there is also another, ancient, start date for Advent.
Forty days of Advent
In Celtic Christian tradition there were three periods of time set as 40-day ‘Lents’. The sixth-century Welsh historian monk Gildas, a contemporary of David, patron saint of Wales, wrote about what he called ‘the three 40s’ – the three periods of Lent held in the Celtic monastic centres. These were:
the traditional 40 days leading up to Easter, which we still keep, focusing on the passion and crucifixion of Christ
the 40 days following Pentecost Sunday, focusing on the inspiring lives of saints who have gone before us
the 40 days leading up to Christmas – 40 days of Advent, starting on the evening of 15 November.
It is believed that the 40 days of Advent were further split into three sections, colloquially termed the three comings of Christ. The first was the incarnation, what we all focus upon at this time of year; the second is Christ coming into our lives; the third is the coming of Christ at the end of all things, as depicted in the book of Revelation.
The incarnation is a deeply significant moment in history. The Celtic tradition was thoroughly woven through with the concept of the Cosmic Christ. That is, in the Celtic tradition:
Christ has always existed and has always been a part of the Trinity (a central aspect of Celtic Christianity, which was deeply Trinitarian)
Christ was around at creation, as reflected in the beginning of the gospel of John, one of the most influential biblical books in Celtic Christianity
the incarnation was a moment when the ineffable Divine restricted that glorious Divine self into a human body, right from the moment of conception, so the full human experience could be had.
The historical Jesus was simply an embodiment of the eternal Divine Cosmic Christ.
So significant was this moment of incarnation to the Celtic Christians that a wonderful story grew in Celtic legend of the sixth-century St Brigid of Ireland. In the book of Acts we have a story of the apostle Philip being physically transported from one place to another (Acts 8:39-40). God is not restricted to the confines of physical space, and so could pick Philip up from one physical space and put him down in another.
In Celtic Christian tradition, they also believed, as many of us do now, that God was not confined to the realms of linear time. If God, unrestricted by physical space, could pick someone up and transport them from one place on earth to another, God could also, being unrestricted by linear time, pick someone up and transport them from one place in time to another.
This is where the story of Brigid comes in. There is a legend/tradition that Brigid was picked up by angels, at the command of God, and transported in time to the actual birth of Christ in Bethlehem. She was the midwife to Mary as she gave birth to Christ, and then was transported back to her normal time.
True or not, such miraculous stories show us that the Celtic Christians felt a real and actual connection with the physical birth of Christ.
A healing balm
The second coming, that of Christ coming into our lives, was the coming of the transforming power of the Divine into the heart of our being.
Celtic theology doesn’t hold to the Augustinian theology of original sin, where the heart of the human being is evil and needs to be totally transformed by the work of the cross of Christ. In Celtic theology the heart of the human being is the Divine image, though tainted by sin.
The coming of Christ into our lives, therefore, does not completely change who we are at the core; rather it restores us to who we truly are, without sin.
One example from historic Celtic theology is that we are like a loving community, and that sin is like an occupying army, tyrannising our souls. The work of the cross, then, is like a hero sweeping through the community driving out the army, restoring the community back to its original loving self.
Another example from historic Celtic theology is that sin is like a skin disease, like leprosy, and that the grace of God through the work of the cross is like a healing balm spread over the skin restoring it to its health and true form. This second coming of Christ is our restoration back to our true selves.
Are we ready?
The third coming of Christ is that which comes at the end of all things, and through this period the Celtic Christians examine their own lives, not in a self-judgmental way, but in a positive self-reflection to see whether they are ready and prepared, in the way they are living, for Christ to return at any moment.
Over this Advent period, why not spend time contemplating each of these three comings of Christ? The incarnation; into your own heart; and at the end of all things.
David Cassian Cole is the founder and executive director of Waymark Ministries CIC. Brother Cassian is an international spiritual teacher and retreat leader and is the UK deputy guardian for The Community of Aidan and Hilda – a globally dispersed Celtic new monastic community. He has lectured in Christian and Bible colleges, has appeared in television documentaries and has been a full-time minister and teaching pastor in different churches.