On November 29 something quiet but important happened. If you missed it, you’re not alone. It slipped past many of us still clutching our bellies from Thanksgiving dinner or still rubbing our sore feet after Black Friday shopping. November 29 was the beginning of the new year for the church. Without Dick Clark’s countdown, the day may have slipped past you. I doubt many champagne corks were popped at midnight the night before. So what do we mean by the church’s new year?
The Christian year is anchored by its major holy days (“holidays”): Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and Christ the King Sunday. By observing those holy days we retell and embody the story of the life of Jesus Christ. Celebration of his coming (Christmas) draws us into his life and then toward his death and resurrection (Easter). At Pentecost, seven weeks after Easter, the Holy Spirit establishes the church. Then we enter a long season called simply Ordinary Time (not ho-hum, but in the sense of ordinals, counting). The end of the church year falls in late November with Christ the King Sunday, as we look for Christ to be crowned Lord of all in glory. Then the following Sunday, we begin all over again and the cycle of worship is repeated.
That’s what happened on November 29. We started over. Happy New Year!
The first four weeks of the year are a season of preparation before the Christmas feast (which traditionally lasts 12 days and gave to the world a very unfortunate, highly repetitive song which shall not be named here — admit it … it’s in your head now, isn’t it?)
This first season of the year is called Advent. Since there are four weeks of preparation, here are four things to know about Advent:
First, Advent is the English version of the Latin word adventus, which means waiting expectantly for one who is coming. In Advent we look forward to the coming of the Christ child at Christmas, and we look forward to Christ’s return in glory.
Second, Advent is not Christmas — it is the preparation for Christmas, not the feast itself. But let’s not be obnoxious about it.
Can you imagine someone correcting the barista who wishes, “Merry Christmas,” by replying, “Thank you very much, but for Christians, this is the season of Advent. We’re still waiting for Christmas. I wish you a blessed Advent.” Ha! You could really confuse the culture warriors in the contentious topics of proper store greetings and correct color of coffee cups. (Note: The color for Advent is purple or blue, not red or green.) And please don’t actually do any of this!
Third, in ancient Christian traditions, Advent is to Christmas as Lent is to Easter — a season of fasting, repentance and spiritual preparation for the coming of the Lord. This is the rhythm all through the year: fasting and feasting, preparation and celebration, breathing in and breathing out. It’s a beautiful thing.
If you want to try on the ancient tradition of Advent, a good first step might be to find ways to practice self-denial and take time for silence and meditation along the way. You don’t have to force Advent. Let the season call to you to a quiet simplicity between the feasts and busyness of December.
Finally, if you’ve ever felt like Christmas has lost its meaning, the practice of Advent has helped many to discover deeper meaning than they might have even known. Working hard to get the house and the dinner ready for Christmas is a very nice thing. Doing the inner spiritual work of preparation is even more rewarding.
May you experience a rich Advent season of preparation, and may the joy of God’s gift in Christ burst open for you when Christmas morning arrives.