A Word Concerning the Church Year
The purpose of the Church Year is to give regularity to Christian devotion and worship by moving through a cycle. Through the cycle of the year, we are forced for half of it (December through May) to focus on the life of Christ – his birth, life, passion, resurrection and ascension – and then to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. This aids us in keeping those most important events in the life of the Church regularly before us, and those most important events have to do with the person and work of our Lord. Many churches observe special days during the latter half of the year (June through November). However, it is primarily the first half of the Church Year in which the major events in the life of our Lord are observed or celebrated.
I am not recommending the use of a lectionary, though I certainly do not condemn it. I am simply advocating using the regularity of the Church Year as a guide to preaching. Thus I preach through gospel texts surrounding the life of our Lord from Advent through Pentecost, about half the year. During the summer, I take up a letter of the New Testament, and in the fall, spend time with an Old Testament book, until I come back around to Advent.
The Church Year begins with the Season of Advent in which we prepare for the coming of our Lord. It begins the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas Day, thus giving us four Sundays during Advent. The Christmas Season is the celebration of our Lord’s coming and lasts twelve days, December 25 through January 5. January 6 marks Epiphany, the manifestation of the Christ-child to the gentiles, using the text of the visitation of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12). The next major season is Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday – forty days prior to Easter, not including Sundays. Lent ends with Easter, which is also a season, lasting fifty days, Pentecost being that fiftieth day – the seventh Sunday after Easter Sunday. And since our Lord ascended forty days from his resurrection (Acts 1:1-3, 6-11), that day is celebrated as the Ascension of our Lord, ten days prior to Pentecost. After Pentecost is that time I spoke of already which is the other half of the Church Year. So, we have:
Advent (four Sundays prior to Christmas);
Christmas (December 25 through January 5);
Epiphany (January 6);
Ash Wednesday begins Lent (forty days prior to Easter, excluding Sundays);
Easter Sunday (the Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after the Spring equinox on March 21, a season lasting fifty days);
Ascension (the fortieth day of the Easter season, always on Thursday);
Pentecost Sunday (the fiftieth day from, and including, Easter Sunday).
A Word about What Follows
What lies before you are devotions for that season in the calendar of the Church Year known as “Advent.” Advent comes from the Latin, adventus, which simply means, “coming”; in this case, the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. As Christians, we recognize two “comings” of our Lord: the one in which he came in humility at Bethlehem some two thousand years ago, and the one we await when he comes on the clouds in all his glory. Advent reminds us of this. According to church lectionaries, the text for the very first Sunday in Advent comes from our Lord’s “Olivet Discourse” in which he speaks of the future coming (return) of the “Son of Man,” meaning, of course, himself. The text for the second Sunday comes from the preaching of John the Baptist who called the people to repent since “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The forerunner proclaimed the coming of the Messiah in his own day. Thus, in the first two Sundays of the season, the two comings of our Lord are clearly depicted. Yet a third coming is spoken of by a preacher from long ago named Bernard (of Clairveaux). He spoke of the coming of Christ into our hearts, that coming which is between the other two. Evangelicals instantly recognize this coming as they are the people who constantly preach, “Ye must be born again.” And so Advent is full of meaning as we look backward, forward, and inward to the One whose comings have made all the difference in the world.
As for history and tradition, Advent includes the four Sundays before Christmas Day, at least in the West. In the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Season of Advent is somewhat longer. We know that the season was definitely observed in the West by the latter half of the sixth century. The purpose of Advent is to prepare ourselves for our Lord’s coming. Thus, like Lent, it has historically been marked by self-examination in the light of Scripture, confession, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (See F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingston, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed., [Oxford University Press, 1974, 1983; rpt. 1993], p. 19).
It is my belief that a return to what I might call “Advent thinking” would be a wonderful corrective to the current practice in our churches. By “practice” I do not mean that today’s Evangelical churches in America have purposely adopted a certain way of behaving or doing church prior to Christmas. But that is just the point: there is no certain way of being church prior to Christmas in Evangelical churches; there is no understanding of what we are supposed to be about. Indeed, there is no Advent at all; we celebrate Christmas from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. There is no preparation for His coming; there is no self-examination; there is no understanding that we are supposed to be getting ourselves ready. For the Bridegroom comes when we least expect Him. Moreover, it is living in the anticipation of His coming that calls us to sanctify ourselves, for “everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure (1 John 3:3).
Instead, we celebrate Christmas during Advent and are only too happy when Christmas is over. It was fun while it lasted, we say. But here is where tradition can help us again. You see, Christmas is a season as well, twelve days to be exact, from December 25 through January 5. (Yes, that’s where the song comes from.) That is when Christmas is supposed to be celebrated, AFTER one has spent four weeks or more in self-examination, meditation, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. And by almsgiving, we mean giving to the poor and not those who will give us gifts in return. Then Christmas truly is a celebration in which we welcome the One who has come, for whom we have prepared, heeding the words of John the Baptist who warned us, “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand (or at stake)!”
So you see how we contemporary Christians have it all mixed up. And to those Evangelicals who will scorn Advent as just another tradition, well Christmas is just another tradition as well. It comes from the third and fourth centuries and, in some parts of the empire at that time, was celebrated on January 6. (See the reference work above, pp. 280-1.) Indeed, many early Baptists did not observe the day because it was reminiscent of “popery.” My suggestion is merely that if we are going to observe Christmas at all, let us forsake the contemporary way we do it that has more in common with the commercial culture in which we live and let us observe Christmas as Christians did centuries ago, that is, in such a way that is more Christ-honoring because it is preceded by a season of personal reflection and repentance, a season of waiting and anticipating, a season of expectation and hope. That is what Advent is to Christmas.
Concerning the devotions before you, the Scripture readings come largely from the Liturgy of the Hours and other lectionary material. However, I have made many adjustments. The Advent readings come largely from the prophet Isaiah, the prophet of hope and of our Lord’s coming. As the Old Testament is all about preparing for the coming of Christ, it is fitting that Advent readings should come from there. Of course, New Testament readings dominate the Christmas season. These devotions will take us through Epiphany (January 6), which marks the end of Christmas and the commemoration of the visit of the magi, and through the week after Epiphany to the Sunday following which commemorates the baptism of our Lord. All Scripture references come from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. And may the Bride of Christ seek nothing else more than holiness as she awaits her Husband’s return, he who dressed her in dazzling white through his own blood.