I grew up in churches that did not follow the liturgical calendar or the Christian year. Our church year, such as it was, had only two noteworthy celebrations- Christmas and Easter. Christmas was celebrated as a single day, and Easter was marked by Good Friday and Easter Sunday, with both a sunrise service and the traditional resurrection day service, followed by family gatherings of some sort. Once in England, I spent Easter with my employers, Methodist farmers from North Yorkshire, for whom Easter was akin to American Thanksgiving, with a large meal celebrated with friends and family. I’d never even heard of Advent until attending some ecumenical Protestant services in chapels on military bases, though I seldom actually paid attention to the liturgical calendar or what the “season” meant during those services because they had never been part of my tradition and therefore seemed irrelevant to me.
For the past three years however, I have been attending a progressive United Church of Christ (UCC) church in Lancaster, PA ( see: There’s something happening here…) and started to learn more about the church year as the congregation celebrated worship during the different time periods. I also went to Lancaster Theological Seminary to do my Master’s degree, and while there took a worship class taught by the exceptionally talented preacher and singer Dr. Catherine Williams, which furthered my knowledge significantly about the Christian year, such that I’ve developed an affinity for the liturgical calendar and its spiritual patterns and rituals. It gives spiritual shape to the year in much the same way that the seasons do to the solar calendar. By paying attention to the patterns of nature, I am more connected to God’s creation. Likewise, when I pay attention to the church year, I feel more closely connected to God, to my spiritual practices, and my spiritual community. Like ancient or modern celebrations of springtime and harvest, the church year provides Christians with the opportunity for engaging in meaningful rituals which are communal in nature. In these tumultuous times, I believe that building community and engaging in ritual are vital acts of resistance to unholy things.
Gail Ramshaw, in her excellent book Christian Worship: 100,000 Sundays of Symbols and Rituals, speaks to the importance of rituals noting that they: bond communities together through communal participation and assist in running communities smoothly, they carry “symbolic value” and as a ritual holds that symbolic value, it also holds the community, as well as embodying a community’s social values. “For most religious people, their rituals are the central source of personal and communal religious experience through which they gain knowledge of the faith…Rituals communicate group values, and participation in the rituals reinforces those values.” (Ramshaw, 33-35.) I find that my Christian faith is strengthened by participating in rituals that were previously unknown to me by following the Christian year, which Constance M. Cherry says, “tells the story of God,” and that “it provides a guide for our own spiritual pilgrimage.” (Cherry, 208-9)
It’s interesting that as the Western solar calendar is winding down to its end, the church year has just begun with the First Sunday of Advent. This begins the season in which we celebrate the coming of the Christ, the Incarnation of God in human form, for four Sundays prior to Christmas day. Ruth C. Duck notes that Advent does not have roots in the earliest years of the church but was not instituted until the sixth century by the Roman Catholic Church, though its exact history is unknown. “It may have grown out of early lectionaries that end with readings about the second coming of Christ and begin with Christmas or Epiphany. Or Advent may have been a response to the Roman festival from December 17 to 23 extolling the god Saturn, since we know that from December 17 to 23 Christians prayed the O antiphons, seven prayers longing for the presence of Christ. In 380 CE a council in Spain asked people to worship continually from December 17 to January 6. In 465, the Synod of Tours expected monks to fast from December 1 to 25; in 581 this was extended to laity for three days a week.” (Duck, 134) The murky history and lack of a link to the apostles is not of terrible importance to me. The early church didn’t have it all figured out, often disagreed about things, and as I am reminded when able to attend worship at the Ember Faith Community, that I am a stumbling beginner myself so having some structure is a positive thing. The true importance for me is in the significance of the season, because Advent points to Jesus the Christ, his light, and redemptive work for us individually and for the world.
Duck further writes of Advent that it, “expresses hope and longing that God’s full will may be done. This involves admitting the limits of the present world and our own lives as they are; it means embracing news ways of living to welcome Christ’s reign.” (Duck, 134) To me that says that in this season, as the days shorten and the darkness lasts longer, that I am called to reflect on my own life and the ways in which I can live into the kindom of God on a daily basis. What does it look and feel like to truly experience a longing for the coming of the Christ? This world’s limitations are often of our own human making because of our own individual inability to see God in the faces, lives, and experiences of others. What is the redemptive work of Christ for such a world? For such as me? These are the types of questions that Advent brings to me. Hopefully some answers will come as well.
I logged onto Twitter today and searched for Advent to see what the twitterverse had to say about this season. Almost every tweet I saw was for some Christmas sale or a particular “must-have” item for shoppers to spend their money on in order to prove their love for someone at Christmas. There was not much that I saw that reflected Jesus’ life, ministry, death, or resurrection. There was this though from Pope Francis:
Peace be with you.
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