Today is the first Sunday in Advent. Advent does not, as I’ve read in more than one place, begin on the last Sunday in November. Mostly it does, but occasionally it begins on the first Sunday in December. The crucial thing is that Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas. Unlike Lent, the other great fasting period of the Middle Ages, it isn’t a set period. It varies in length from year to year.
For the people of the Middle Ages, Advent was a time of preparation for Christmas. It wasn’t Christmas itself, as many of my neighbours think, since Christmas trees and Christmas decorations are already appearing in these parts. Advent was, and is, the beginning of the church year and it was a serious time. It was such a serious time that people had to fast. Fasting meant abstaining from meat, not abstaining from food altogether. This showed them that this time was different from the rest of the year. It was a time for reflecting on the past and thinking about the future.
Advent wasn’t just about preparing for the baby in the manger; it was also about preparing for the second coming of Christ. Everyone in the Middle Ages was aware that Christ was coming again and would judge mankind. Most parish churches had a doom painting somewhere on their walls. Doom paintings showed what we would call the Last Judgement, when Christ judges everyone, living and dead, sending them to Heaven or Hell.
Doom paintings, such as the illustrations to this post, are quite frightening. They show the two different fates awaiting everyone, living or dead. Usually, those judged righteous are assisted to Heaven by angels, while demons with sharp teeth, claws and instruments of torture carry the unrighteous to Hell. I should think that seeing one of those every time you went to church, which would have been more than once a week, would have had a very salutary effect on your behaviour.