Happy New Year! Sunday, December 3, 2017 began Advent, which is the first season of the Church Year. Time flies, as we have all heard and perhaps experienced. We use seasons to mark time: Fall, Summer, Winter, Spring. We talk about semesters at school and quarters at work. We build our breaks and vacations around big national holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year, Super Bowl, Easter. We say things like “remember last summer, when we swam in Lake Michigan?” or “remember that one winter when it snowed three feet in two weeks?” We talk about specific dates, like December 3, 2017, but we also talk about seasons, like Late Autumn or Christmastime.
The church has marked time using seasons. These seasons aren’t built around climate or national holiday or school breaks. They’re built around the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here’s what the Church year looks like:
Advent (4 weeks leading up to Christmas)
Christmas (12 days)
Epiphany (January 6)
Lent (Ash Wednesday)
Holy Week (week before Easter)
Great Triduum (three great days: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday)
Resurrection Sunday (Easter)
Easter (7 weeks)
Trinity Sunday (Ordinary Time through Christ the King Sunday)
Advent (it cycles again…)
Each Sunday has a preplanned bible reading schedule that includes 4 readings from the same categories: one from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a New Testament Epistle, and a Gospel reading. Often these four readings will harmonize and make a sense as a whole. Other times, quite frankly, they are disparate and feel very out of sync with each other. The point is to walk us through the big themes of salvation and to cover the big stories of the Christian Faith. The church year is built on a three year cycle, plainly called year A, B, and C. Each year has the same themes but different readings around the same themes. After three consecutive years, we’ve been shaped by the essentials of God’s story of salvation.
This past Sunday, for example, was the first Sunday in Advent, Year B. The 4 readings included:
Isaiah 64:1-9 (Old Testament reading)
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 (Psalm reading)
1 Corinthians 1:3-9 (Epistle reading)
Mark 13:24-37 (Gospel reading)
Next Sunday is the second Sunday in Advent, Year B, and will have 4 different readings from the same category: portions of Isaiah 40, Psalm 85, 2 Peter, the Gospel of Mark. Churches of many different affiliations and flavors follow the lectionary. Some are unswerving, others do a mix of sometimes but not all year ‘round. The church I lead has no rule that says “you must follow these or else,” nor do we stick to them so closely that we can’t change as the moment arises or the Spirit leads.
So, again: Happy New Year. Get it? By the way, I’ll say the same thing as we mark the other new year on Jaunary 1, 2018. Ah, if only the first Sunday of Advent had some kind of Times Square countdown, ball drop, maybe Ryan Seacrest, a Mariah Carey lip sync, confetti.
You know what? Nah.
Why the Church Year? Why the lectionary reading schedule? Perhaps it seems rigid and inorganic. I’ve personally observed it for over 10 years and have used it off and on in ministry and can say from experience: dead it’s not! In fact, it brings life, freshness, and helps us take a well-rounded approach to all the subplots of salvation found in scripture. Here are three reasons (I’m a pastor, so there are always three reasons) that we take guidance from the Church Year:
First, it helps us intentionally think about the life of Jesus. If we’re mindful of His journey, it becomes (a little) easier to identify with him and think about how to live like Jesus today.
Second, it unifies the church. It’s neat to see on twitter or in another church that other people are talking about the same scripture references week to week. When a congregation hangs out in the same scripture verses, it’s unifying. When the whole church, at least some swaths, are together, it’s very unifying.
Third, it tells the whole story. Since the readings are laid out and all encompassing, it makes sure we pastors don’t just hang out in our favorite verses. This is especially helpful for pastors like me, who, left to their own devices, might pull to their favorite bible stories and avoid the tough ones. As a striking example, I don’t think I would’ve chosen the Gospel reading for this past Sunday because it feels really out of place in our Christmas shopping extravaganza culture. Frankly, all the readings are kind of a downer. But that’s on purpose, which hopefully will become clearer each Sunday leading up to the Incarnation of Christ. That kind of mystery doesn’t deserve a light touch. It’s a big, gracious, holy, exciting, terrifying thing when God comes to earth, right? Right!
There was a time when Jesus was talking about coming back a second time. It’s in Mark 13, and it’s the gospel reading for Advent I, Year B.
But in those days, following that distress, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at your door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
-Mark 13:24-37 (NIV2011)
Kinda odd, right? Yes, it’s True and good and beautiful and majestic, but hardly fits on the inside of a Christmas Card with a pic of a cozy log cabin resting on a snowy mountain under moonlit sky. The outside is all peaceful and serene, but instead of opening the card to a message like “may the peace of the holiday be yours…” it reads “THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED… AND HE WILL SEND HIS ANGELS… HEAVEN AND EARTH WILL PASS AWAY.” Merry Christmas, the Davidsons.
Listen: Jesus is pretty clear about how this whole thing will end. We call Him Alpha and Omega for a reason: Christ Himself spoke the world into existence, and Christ Himself will come to bring about the culmination of a new Heavens and Earth. That’s how it ends. But what about right now? Well… right now we re-live the human experience of crying out for Messiah. On Christmas, we will celebrate that God has come to be one of us. Come Holy Week and Easter, we will remember His death and celebrate His resurrection. At that time, our church will remember that we are waiting for His return to make all things new. Until then, the Spirit of God is at work to slowly unfold the Kingdom among us through us. There is renewal now. There is hope now. There is life and new life now.
But we have to wait, and waiting is really really hard. Advent is an exercise in waiting. As a spiritual discipline, as a liturgy, it teaches us about waiting for God. I don’t know about you, but I’m waiting for God to do some things in my life, my family, and our community. That’s the little waiting. The big waiting we all share in, and that’s waiting for Jesus to come again. Next time it won’t be as a little baby but rather as a conquering hero. So, as Jesus Himself says in our gospel reading: watch!
I’ve experienced some human hurts in the past few months. Some of it close, some of it nearby in church and friends. God heals and brings about good in our suffering, but the waiting… the hoping in our pain, the trust in our ache, the hurt in our hope… that’s Advent.
Come, Lord Jesus. We really need you.
Let’s share in this journey together. What are you waiting for? What divine intervention do you long for? Where is hope easy or difficult in your journey?