Grace Church, like many other Christian Churches, understands time differently than the secular world.
We chart time based on two events in the life of Jesus: his birth, always celebrated on Dec. 25, and his resurrection, Easter, which is a “movable feast” with the date determined by an ancient tradition locating it after the Sunday after the full moon after the spring solstice.
Christians begin our “church year” with Advent, which begins four Sundays prior to Christmas. Advent, a word derived from the Latin term adventus“to come,” invites us to celebrate Jesus’ birth (the first coming), attend to how Christ is present to us now (through prayer, Holy Communion, Church community, and Scripture), and to prepare for Christ’s return (the second coming).
Advent werememberGod taking the initiative to join humanity in the person of Jesus and we anticipate the promise of God’s victory over sin and death. We live in the murky “Time Between” the first and second comings, suffering loss, injustices, violations due to the powers of sin and death, but also participating in God’s Way of Love by giving of ourselves through service and love of our neighbors.
Many churches, my own included, emphasize themes of joyful anticipation and hope-filled expectancy. Less emphasized are the themes of the world’s darkness and the coming judgement.
This imbalanced emphasis on the joy is understandable. For one thing, we tend to come to church to “find peace” and spiritual comfort. On the other hand, I find the prospect of God’s judgement (not my own!) to be incredibly hopeful.
While we make piece-meal progress on improving the human condition, our progress is rarely sustained because we humans have a tendency to mess things up. (The immunization controversy is an example of this, as is our technological progress with the side-effect of significant carbon emissions.)
We need God’s intervention, God’s guidance, God’s salvation, for creation to be made right. And that “making things right” is what I understand judgement to be. Judgement is not condemnation.
The Episcopal Church, for all its flaws, does have some wisdom in our tradition of letting Advent be Advent, of acknowledging the darkness of the world as our days grow shorter, the suffering and disappointment that characterizes so much of human life….and holding up the promise of God’s good intent for all creation that will come in the End.
By holding off on the Christmas celebrations when Christmas Eve finally comes around, we experience a burst of joy, a foretaste of that future for which we long, realized partially in the birth of baby boy in a cave in occupied territory. We access the joy more fully if we acknowledge the darkness and longing first. That’s why we wait for Christmas to be Christmas.
Joslyn Schaefer is the rector at Grace in the Mountains Church in Waynesville.