As I suggested in my earlier post, We Are Liturgical Beings, there is a progression of seasons through the year that do not necessarily correspond to the civil calendar. I'd like to introduce you to them, one at a time. I'd also like to invite those of you who are already familiar with the liturgical calendar to read these as well. I think you'll find it helpful.
We'll take a look at a new one each week until we've made it through the whole year. I think this is important, because it doesn't stop when we leave church on Sunday. The liturgical year flows through our whole lives, our devotional times, our worship (both public and private), our prayer. It is a very powerful tool, and to reject it or mutilate it is, quite frankly, wrong.
Oh, and by the way... From here on, I'm going to change the way I spell “calendar” when I'm talking about the traditional church one. That way, you'll know that “kalendar” refers to the liturgical one, and “calendar” refers to the one we use in the secular world. It's not actually my doing; I got it from Anglican circles, and found it useful.
Now that we have that down, let's begin. But where to start? Is there a good starting place? Actually, there is. The first season of each new liturgical year, and the best place to start, is in Advent. Now this is where my Methodist brothers and sisters, and my brothers and sisters in other faith traditions/denominations, have kind of allowed the calendar to influence the kalendar. (See how useful that is?) See, most of us think that Advent is just the precursor to Christmas. So we decorate the church with Christmas decorations, sing carols, have Christmas parties, and do all the Christmassy things that we've grown accustomed to in the secular world.
The problem with that is that Advent isn't pre-Christmas. It is its own, distinct, season.
Advent begins on the Sunday closest to St. Andrew's day, which always falls on November 30. Advent is the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. On years when December 24 is a Sunday, we celebrate the fourth Sunday of Advent in the morning, because Christmas does not begin until evening (hence the name... more on this next week). The color is purple or royal blue. The purple color is the older, more generally accepted color, and helps us remember that Advent is a penitential season. In fact, the Orthodox call it “Lesser Lent”. But where Lent has the flavor of repentance, Advent has the flavor of hope and returning light. The other color, royal blue, is a more recent addition and is mainly found in Anglican circles (which may explain why I like it so much). It gives the visual cues of royalty, and helps us separate the penitence of Lent from the preparation and hopefulness of Advent.
The four Sundays in Advent follow a pattern. Advent is all about the coming Messiah, about preparing for Christ's arrival. So the first Sunday is about the Second Coming. The Gospel readings are drawn from later in Christ's ministry as he talks about his return. My most favorite hymn is traditionally sung on this first Sunday in Anglican and Methodist circles (and a few others, too): “Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending” by Charles Wesley. I can't resist giving you a taste:
The second Sunday re-shifts the focus to Christ's first coming. Here we meet John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness, “Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand!” Please note that we still haven't started singing Christmas music yet. There is a marvelous selection of Advent hymns in The United Methodist Hymnal and in the Episcopal Church's Hymnal 1982.
The third Sunday starts hinting at Christmas. But it is still not Christmas. We talk about John the Baptist again, and his ministry. John was important because he rejected the finer things in life in order to devote himself to God and proclaim the immanent coming of the Kingdom. Roman Catholic and some Anglican churches will use rose colors on this day, to signify that Advent is half way over. In fact, this Sunday is called Gaudete Sunday, because in the Latin Mass, the service begins with “Gaudete, Jerusalem” (O be joyful, Jerusalem).
The fourth Sunday really starts hinting at Christmas, but it is crucial to remember that it isn't Christmas. Here we meet Mary and learn about her encounter with Gabriel.
The whole theme of Advent is one of darkness. Advent falls in the northern hemisphere's darkest time. The days are getting shorter, the nights longer, and in the ancient world this was a cause of concern. As we progress through the season, however, we add more and more light, until we get to Christmas.
This is especially apparent in the Advent wreath. Advent wreaths are fairly new, so they don't really have much of a tradition. Usually there are three purple candles (or royal blue, depending on which colors that particular church uses) and one pink one, to correspond with Gaudete. The United Methodist Book of Worship calls for four purple candles. In the center is one white candle, usually much larger than the others. On the first Sunday, one of the purple candles is lit, and burns through the rest of the service. It may also burn at other services through the week. On the second Sunday, two candles are lit: The first candle and one other. The third Sunday, the rose candle is lit along with the previous two purple ones, and on the fourth Sunday all four are lit. The central white candle, known as the Christ candle, is not lit until Christmas Eve.
The whole reason for Advent's existence is to remind us that we live in darkness and we need Christ's light in order to function. It is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ. It's not so much that Christ came, or that he will come again, but that Christ comes, continually. We just have to open our eyes. In the beauty of a sunrise or sunset. In the taste of a cinnamon-raisin bagel with cream cheese. In the laughter of friends and family, gathered around the table at Thanksgiving. In the sound of a John Coltrane saxophone solo, or Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma”, or J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. In the smell of a baby or your spouse or incense. In the feel of a hug or a handshake or a shovel or a keyboard.
Advent trains us to see it. Advent shows us that Christ really is there. Advent is important, because if we're not ready we'll miss the Incarnation altogether.