A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent & the Church’s New Year
Happy Advent, happy new (church) year! This is the first Sunday of the church’s year, which goes from today all the way to the Feast of Christ the King, at the end of November. Time in the church goes like this, around and around, repeating itself year after year. Advent – Christmas – Epiphany – Lent – Easter – Pentecost – Advent – Christmas – Epiphany – and so on. Its constancy helps us to see how we’ve changed each time a new church year begins.We never go through a year in the church the same person. Scripture readings take on a new hue, we occupy a different perspective in its stories. Our relationship to the church changes, our understanding grows. I’ve been most aware of this in the times I’ve tried to preach an old sermon, only to find halfway through preaching it that this isn’t who I am now.
Whether we change for the worse or (I hope) for the better, we change. There’s an inscription on the threshold of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles; it’s by the artist Robert Irwin and it says: “Ever changing, never twice the same.” So here as we stand on the brink of another church year, may you change in ways that are good. And pass through each season a wiser, better person. I pray that for all of you - all of us.
Advent has such a curious beginning. No matter how many times I go through the liturgical year, I’m always surprised by the way it starts. Portents will appear in the sky. There will be distress among nations. People will faint from fear and foreboding. Two will be in the field, working, one will be taken, one left behind. False messiahs will come and deceive the innocent. Pregnant women and nursing mothers will run in fear. This is all part of the same discourse from which our Gospel reading for today was taken.
Jesus says all this to the disciples, near the end of his life. We call it the “Little Apocalypse,” “apocalypse” just meaning revelation or insight. The insight he has is of the fragility and impermanence of the world and of his own world in particular. In the context of Luke’s Gospel, these are words Jesus said in the last days, hours even, of his life. You can see how it makes sense there, in those dire moments. But why does the church then put it here at the beginning of Advent and of the new year?
Advent is a very old season. So is Christmas. Christians have been celebrating the two since at least the fourth century. It’s only recently that Christmas in our culture has taken over all of the month December, in some cases reaching back into November, even late October.
Priests love to complain that we rush into Christmas too quickly, forgetting Advent. That we’ve forgotten the old custom of Christmas beginning on December 25 and ending January 6, Epiphany, the twelve days of Christmas. For our culture, Christmas ends on December 25, which for the church is the first day of Christmas. Just when we start to sing our carols, everyone is packing up their ornaments, ready to move on.
But back when Christmas began later in December, it would not have seemed so strange to come in early December to church and hear of Christ’s judgment, things ending. The harvest is past, the first frosts have come, every bit of green withered, the trees dormant. Preparation for winter is mostly finished. The seeds for growing next spring are safely stored away. All we have to do now is wait, for winter to come. Then we’ll retreat indoors and start the festivities that help get us through the long winter. Now is the perfect time to think about last things, judgment, the second coming.
Advent hasn’t changed. Our culture has. And so we’re left with this strange dissonance between what we expect when we come in the door at the beginning of December, and what we get.
The writer Nora Gallagher calls liturgical time a “counterweight” to the culture’s time. She says it’s as if we set “One time against another.” In Advent especially, it feels that way. We come to church expecting to see what we’re getting in the world around us, especially here where the stories come from. Instead, the decorations still are sparse. The baby Jesus nowhere in sight. The color is blue, not red and green. And the readings all about judgement and destruction. We enter an older time, time that’s slower. We look inward. We think about judgment, accountability, how ephemeral life is. We take inventory of our lives, our labors, examining our faults, asking forgiveness, resolving to do better.
Then, and only then, are we ready to hear the story of our salvation all over again, from the birth to the death to Christ’s crowning as king. As we begin this new church year, may we begin it with open hearts, open minds, a clear conscience and an examined life. May that be the gift we bring to Christ later this month, at Christmas.