Advent, from the Latin adventus, does not simply meaning coming or arrival.
There are at least two other Latin words that could be translated this way, not counting several interjections. So why did the early Church go with the term adventus to describe the period leading up to Christmas?
In the Latin, the word had an intriguing range of meanings. Adventus is a form of the verb advenio which is defined not only as arrive, come to, but also as develop, set in, and arise. Adventus itself also refers to an invasion, incursion, ripening, and appearance—all denotations that are rich with implications for the gospel accounts of Christ.
The relationship between adventus and military comings is especially noteworthy. In ancient Rome, Adventus was a technical term for the ‘glorious entry’ of an emperor into his capital city. Often this happened after a military victory. In addition to celebrating conquest on the battlefield, the birthday of the royal leader was also commemorated in an Adventus. (Source here.)
One of the more famous uses of the word in this context appears in the ancient Roman epic the Aeneid, by Virgil. It occurs in the sixth book, where Aeneas has journeyed to the underworld to visit his deceased father Anchises. In the course of that visit, Anchises prophecies to his son about the glorious future of Rome:
Here Caesar, of Iulus’ glorious seed,
Behold ascending to the world of light!
Behold, at last, that man, for this is he,
So oft unto thy listening ears foretold,
Augustus Caesar, kindred unto Jove.
He brings a golden age; he shall restore
Old Saturn’s sceptre to our Latin land,
And o’er remotest Garamant and Ind
His sway extend; the fair dominion
outruns th’ horizon planets, yea, beyond
The sun’s bright path, where Atlas’ shoulder bears
Yon dome of heaven set thick with burning stars.
Against his coming [adventum] the far Caspian shores
Break forth in oracles; the Maeotian land
Trembles, and all the seven-fold mouths of Nile
(Aen. 6.789-798; Theodore Williams translation).
Notice how the account of Caesar begins with a reference to his genealogy and therefore, implicitly his birth. Caesar’s ‘coming’ is depicted as an event with global ramifications, reverberating from the Caspian sea to the Nile River—what then counted as the remote reaches of the known world. Caesar is also divinized here: he ‘ascends’ to a ‘world of light’ and his dominion extends not only to the horizon but even beyond the ‘bright path’ of the sun.
Advent then is a most fitting word to describe the period leading up to Christmas. For what we celebrate is the coming of a king, an emperor, one who was both fully man and fully God. The Church drives this point home for us in setting the Feast of Christ the King right before the start of Advent.
Thus far, the range of meanings ascribed to advent have been within the scope of the physical and the tangible. But the word could also have a more metaphorical and mystical meaning, signifying an arrival of something to one’s mind or soul. This is how it is used in Cicero’s treatise On the Nature of the Gods. The word occurs in a section where Cicero is criticizing one philosopher’s argument for the existence of the gods:
If the gods only appeal to the faculty of thought, and have no solidity or definite outline, what difference does it make whether we think of a god or of a hippocentaur? Such mental pictures are called by all other philosophers mere empty imaginations, but you say they are the arrival [adventum] and entrance into our minds of certain images (On the Nature of the Gods, 1.105).
In a purely deistic context, Cicero, who lived in the century before Christ, is making an ontological and epistemological argument. On the level of ontology, which concerns the nature of things, he is wondering if the Roman gods have any substance or tangible reality if they appear only as images to the mind. This issue becomes epistemological: how could the ancient Romans know if their gods even existed if they are only known to us in this way?
In the absence of Christianity, Cicero’s concerns make some sense. To think of the gods as merely images or ideas does seem problematical, especially when one is attempting to argue for their existence.
The example of the hippocentaur—or simply, the centaur—is instructive. In ancient mythology the centaur was a half man, half horse. If you can’t picture that, there is no shortage of images to aid you, such as this one. But of course, the ability of the image to register in your mind certainly does not mean there is such a thing as a centaur.
But then consider how this is all turned on its head with the adventus of Christ. He is, in fact, ‘the image of the invisible God,’ as Colossians 1:15 tells us. But in this case, the image has ‘solidity’ and a ‘definite outline’: the image became incarnate, the Word became flesh. And therefore, on the basis of this fact, we as Christians, unlike the ancient Romans, have solid ground for our faith and cause for great joy.