Thoughts on the liturgical year at the start of Advent. (Advent 1, Year B – Isaiah 64:1-9)
This last year – and particularly since my priesting in June – I’ve been initiated into the strange and wonderful world of Anglican vestments. And since they were all made for men, I’ve had to work on me wearing them – rather than them wearing me…
And it isn’t just one set – the liturgical year (and the glories of the Whitkirk cupboards) demand regular changes. Today we begin Advent – so having presided at 8.30 I now know there’s at least one chasuble of each liturgical colour that I can wear. Today we begin Advent, so the legendary four candles banner is also on show.
Why do we go to all that trouble? Well I guess for the same reason Matthew makes an effort to celebrate festivals on their correct day – with week-day Eucharists – and why as well as spurning your coffee, at this time of year he will also refuse your mince pies…
…because the church year can be a powerful aid to our faith. It can seem odd and inconvenient…this year Advent 4 is also Christmas Eve; sometimes there is hardly a gap between Epiphany and Lent. But in a way that is its power…the church calendar is different to other calendars…it is not a marking of historical events in order…but a story, an account of the self-revelation of God. Not just dates to remember…but something we participate in. And by taking part – something that makes God’s interaction with the world real for us now.
That’s why after the excitement of processions and hosannas on Palm Sunday, we travel with Jesus through Holy Week. If we share in foot washing, stripping the altar and the desolation of Gethsemane on Thursday; and the almost unbearable sadness and cruelty of Good Friday – then the emptiness of Holy Saturday prepares us to experience, as well as proclaim the joy of Easter morning. As St Paul says – by dying with Christ, we live with Christ.
Forty days later, we come on a perhaps inconvenient Thursday evening to be reminded by his ascension – that Jesus conquered death for all people in all times. Putting aside that time does far more to make it real than just reading about it.
Sometimes, the way the story fits into the year can seem odd. Infant teachers struggle to explain Jesus going from baby in a manger – to the Son of God dying on a cross…in three months.
…and it can become too familiar – we know what happens next – one year blurs into another. This can seem especially acute in Advent.
Advent, we are told is a season of waiting…but one of the comings we wait for has already happened. We celebrated it only 11 months ago…
The introduction to my Advent book this year uses the image of a snowball rolling downhill as a useful picture for the church’s year, and its story of God’s interaction with the world. As the snowball rolls, it’s the same snowball – but with every turn it picks up more snow…
…we recount the same story each year – but with each telling and retelling it picks up more resonances, more ways we can understand…and we are drawn deeper into God’s story.
The snowball picking up new snow reminds us that the salvation story continues today. The point of telling and retelling the story of God’s interactions with his people is so that we can recognise it when it breaks into our world. Entering properly into the church year reminds us that God does break into our world: creating, healing, saving…and will do so again. God is present in our world – but so often we don’t recognise his presence.
To experience Christmas as God breaking into the world, rather than the recollection of a nice story, we need to make use of Advent. The purple vestments and hangings can make Advent seem a lot like Lent – and both are a time of preparing, of waiting – but whereas we use Lent to examine ourselves and how we have wandered from God…Advent is a time to examine God, and our readings help us do this.
Today we heard Isaiah wrestling with how God has chosen to relate to the world, how God seems hidden, seems to have turned his face away – how hard this makes it for God’s people. Yet, he says ‘O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay and you are our potter.’
In Advent we spend time with patriarchs, prophets, John the Baptist, Mary…people who were called to speak of God in difficult times…people who understood that though often hidden, God is faithful…people who lived in hope.
Advent is not about hurrying on to Christmas. Advent is about acknowledging the darkness of the world – but doing so with the collective memories of God’s people reminding us that God has broken into the world, and will do again.
Sharing the same story year after year means that every season, whilst unique, also contains the truth of the whole year. In advent we wait with longing for Christ to come into the world…but we do so not as unredeemed people who fear that Christmas might not come.
The purpose of Advent is not to persuade Christ to come…but to prepare us so that we notice when he does. Advent is not Lent – but the disciplines we use in Lent are a good pattern…the doing something different…the changing the rhythm of our lives just a little.
I will try to set aside time to read my Advent book and consider what it tells me – but there are lots of other things we can do…join us at morning or evening prayer, or midweek Eucharists; James has advent candles – light one each day and spend the time waiting on God, or if you are waiting with children he has advent calendars…read the readings for next Sunday each day.
What ever you decide to do – I pray that this Advent we will all learn a little more about the God for whom we wait in hope.