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Happy New Year: An Introduction to Advent & the Liturgical Calendar

As premature as it may feel, let me be the first to greet you with “Happy New Year!” That’s right—today is the first day of the Christian calendar, the beginning of Advent. The seasons of the church calendar help us to live our lives in light of the story of Jesus’ life.

As humans, we tend to organize our lives by organizing our time. We set times each day for working, resting, eating, sleeping, and driving. Our weeks have a rhythm of work and leisure. We mark special days each year such as birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. Holidays, or “holy days,” mark what is most important in a culture. Almost everyone in our country celebrates Christmas, regardless of their faith commitments. And for those of us shaped so deeply by American culture, it’s hard not to think of these days leading up to Christmas in terms of lights, snow, Santa, blow-up decorations for the yard, and of course the anxiety of finding the perfect gifts for our loved ones.

These are deeply held traditions of our culture and can certainly hold good memories and meaning for us. But for those who look to Christ, our spiritual forebears can provide us a Christian calendar with seasons that help us order our worship and life together around a different story—the story of the good news of Jesus.

Very early on, taking their cues from the patterns of the Ancient Hebrew year, the church developed a calendar organized around the life of Jesus. On the fourth Sunday before Christmas, the traditional church calendar begins with Advent, an anticipation of the coming of Jesus. This season of Advent lasts until sundown on December 24th, at which point Christmastide begins. During the weeks of Advent, which means “coming,” the church remembers Jesus’ first coming into the world and looks forward to his second coming to finish the work of redemption he’s begun.

I find waiting to be hard and something I take great pains to avoid. By celebrating Advent each year, I get to learn how to wait and anticipate. In today’s world, busyness and a constant tide of information threatens to fill each gap that might have been used in learning to wait and experience our own deepest longings. We have social media to fill moments of boredom or angst. We have fast food for nourishment on the fly. We are programmed to want efficiency and squeeze as much into every day as possible.

In his compelling book Stand out of our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy, James Williams proposes that “the main risk information abundance poses is not that one’s attention will be occupied or used up, but rather that one will lose control over one’s attentional processes.” To be honest, I feel this trend in myself, and I hope Advent will provide an effective means of reversing it. When we immerse ourselves in Advent, we consciously push against the tide of an instant gratification world and surrender to complete dependence upon the provision of God—a generous God of outrageous patience.

In these four weeks of Advent, I encourage you to try a fast of some sort, perhaps take up the practice of Lectio Divina, or use a resource like the lectionary, The Book of Common Prayer or Every Moment Holy to orient your heart toward hope, anticipation, and longing. I plan to read along with The Grand Miracle: Daily Reflections for the Season of Advent which was mentioned here last week. If you do take on the lectionary readings, keep your eyes out for themes of lament, the failure of God’s people, their need for repentance, and a deep longing for lasting redemption.

When we immerse ourselves in Advent, we consciously push against the tide of an instant gratification world and surrender to complete dependence upon the provision of God—a generous God of outrageous patience. Rob Wheeler

Following Advent comes the Christmas season, or Christmastide, which provides twelve days to celebrate the fulfillment of those Advent longings developed during the previous four weeks. Although holding out hope in a bleak season of life can be painful, the soul-shaping that occurs in the Advent season prepares us to welcome Christ more wholeheartedly. In the Christmas season, we join our hearts with those angels and shepherds who worshiped the newborn King. We declare with them across the years and diverse cultures that the long-promised King anticipated by the prophets of Israel has now finally come to us. Our deepest longings for justice and the fulfillment of hope has arrived. This King Jesus is the glorious God come near, “Emmanuel,” “God with us.”

Christmas focuses our attention on the humility of Jesus. He did not insist on the kingly glory which he deserved, but rather, he humbled himself to enter a wicked world. A celebration of Christmas should lead his followers to new humility and commitment to serve others sacrificially as we observe our Lord’s example.

Christmas provides hope for the healing and flourishing of the world. In Jesus’ life we see God’s commitment to restore all things. The invisible God makes himself visible and comes in a physical body. The Maker of all things now dwells forever in a body like ours. From his incarnation and later his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, we can have hope as we ourselves long for the day when death will be swallowed up in his victory and all things will be made new forever.

So when those twelve days of Christmas come, be sure to feast, give gifts, gather with friends and family, sing, and set aside moments to reflect and celebrate. Do those things which allow you to most delight in the good news of Jesus.

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