This Sunday, December 2, 2012 is the first Sunday of the new church year and the first Sunday in Advent.
But what is Advent and why should I as a Christian be concerned with observing Advent?
This question goes a bit deeper into questions of observing the church year in general. Should Christians be concerned with observing special dates and festivals during the cycle of the year?
I would argue, yes. There are many reasons in favor of observing the church year, but let’s consider just one of those briefly. Just reflect for a moment on our civil calendar. Every year we have a cycle that affects our lives, our decisions, when we travel, when we shop, what we eat, and more – based on the civil calendar of the United States of America. This calendar is designed to make us good citizens and remind us of the major milestones of our national history. It shapes and forms our hearts and minds. The US civil calendar disciples us. It makes us into good little American disciples.
Now, there is some value in this, and I’m not against having a civil calendar, but we are being completely naive if we think that this worldly calendar doesn’t need to have the necessary counterbalance that the church calendar provides us. The civil calendar teaches us to honor and remember, but it also breeds in us a nationalistic zeal that makes us myopic with regard to the world around us. We have to understand that if we shun the church calendar, the only calendar we will have is the civil calendar, and it will be the only annual rhythmic influence on our lives and on our children’s lives. That’s very significant to consider.
Seen in this way, the church year provides a balance to the messages we receive from the calendars that this world provides. In the church calendar, each year we are taught to hope for justice and long for the coming of a Savior (Advent), to celebrate that Savior’s incarnation as God in our own flesh (Christmas), to bask in the glow of the light that the Son of God shines in our dark world (Epiphany), to mourn our own contributions to this world’s brokenness and darkness and the fact that the Son of God had to die to fix it (Lent), to rejoice in the great victory that Jesus Christ won on the cross and the vindication of Him by His Father when He raised Him from the dead (Easter), to celebrate that this man Jesus is now glorified and ascended to heaven and now rules all the entire universe (Ascension), to ponder anew the great power and dignity that he has bestowed on us by sending His Holy Spirit to fill us and empower us (Pentecost), and to take up the mantle as the Church Militant to extend the glorious reign of Christ to all the reaches of the Earth (Trinity Season). Each year this pattern forms Christians and shapes them into Christian disciples.
We need this counter-formation. We as Christians cannot keep our heads in the sand and pretend that we don’t need a Christian calendar to provide balance to the worldly calendars all around us. If we do not offer a counter-formation to the liturgies of the world, then we as the church will be producing disciples that are no different from those in the world around us. We will be self-centered, greedy, entertainment hungry, individualistic, sex crazed, bloodthirsty robots. And isn’t this who we are already? Aren’t these the kinds of disciples our churches are already churning out? Is this what we want to be like? What we want our children to be like?
Now, I’m not advocating that we should remove ourselves from the world, far from it! We as Christians need to be engaged in the world and in the culture so that we can have a voice to its direction and so that we can relate to our friends and neighbors as we share Christ’s love with them. And neither am I claiming that celebrating the church year is some kind of panacea that will cure all our ills and make us all perfect little Christian disciples. Yet, we must see that the calendar of this world is affecting us, and that we desperately need a counterbalance and counter-formation to the formation that the world provides. The church year is not religious formalism. It is not dead religiosity. No, when conceived of properly and with the proper pastoral leadership, observation of the church year can provide an antidote to the poisons that this world delivers to us and which we greedily lap up every single day.
You see, the church calendar provides a disposition. It provides an outlook, a worldview. It gives us something to carry us over from Sunday to Sunday and even to look ahead to weeks and months in the future. It gives us good gospel themes to consider and good godly disciplines to practice. The church calendar makes us wait, watch, pray, and long before we dive headlong into the celebrations of the great feasts of Christmas and Easter. We must long for the coming of Christ and have instilled in us a deep frustration and desire that he would come before we revel in the joys of Christmas morning. It makes us consider the deep hurts and brokenness of this world and long for their restitution before we celebrate the victory that will lead to their banishment.
And this, in short, is the reason for Advent. Celebrating Christmas without advent is what theologians call having an over-realized eschatology: celebrating the victory of Jesus Christ (which is very true and real) without also mourning the fact that in many ways it is not yet reached its consummation. Celebrating Christmas without Advent is like skipping your vegetables and jumping straight for the luxurious chocolate cake or the sumptuous apple pie à la mode. Dessert is wonderful, and something that should be a part of our lives, but if we skip the vegetables and go right to the dessert we will be fat and malnourished.
That’s where we are as American Christians. We are fat and malnourished. We need to eat our vegetables. We need the expectation and patient longing of Advent before we dive headlong into Christmas.