You may have heard it said that the first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new “church year.” But what does it mean for the church year to “begin” anew in Advent? Does this new beginning have something to do with our relationship with God, or is it just the answer to a church trivia question?
One way to understand – and to experience – the church year is to think of the six liturgical seasons as a sequential outline of a Christian journey, rather than a haphazard collection of feasts and fasts. Since Christian faith is not something people are born with, it makes sense for the first season of the church year to reflect that part of the journey that happens before Christ comes in. This is Advent. Then God breaks through into his own creation as Jesus – Christmas. During Epiphany, Jesus’s divinity is revealed to many who encounter him and, we pray, to us. And yet, even after meeting God in Christ, we turn from God, we sin, and we find ourselves in need of repentance and forgiveness – thus the season of Lent. The Easter season celebrates the discovery that neither our sin nor our death can separate us from the love and power of God, and that God’s love defeats both. With God’s help, we respond to this redemption by accepting the gift of the Holy Spirit, and celebrating the Spirit’s presence in the life of the Christian community – this is the long season of Pentecost, which ends when the next Advent begins.
Advent is a time of preparation for life in a world where God doesn’t stand outside creation, but enters fully into the world of sorrow and hope, joy and suffering that we all inhabit. The familiar Advent refrain, “O come, o come Emmanuel” reflects this sense of yearning for a world that is not only God-made but God-infused; the word “emmanuel” is a transliteration of Hebrew words which mean quite literally, “God with us.” During the Christmas season (which begins – begins, not ends! – at sundown on December 24), it is this “with-us-ness” of God that we will celebrate. This celebration demands some spiritual preparation. After all, when we see an infant born in difficult circumstances to a poor unmarried woman, most of us are not generally oriented to notice first and foremost the radiant and real presence of God. Advent is a time to orient ourselves to see God in lowly people and unexpected places.