It's the End of the Year (As We Know It)
December 1, 2014 by Ryan McLaughlin 1 comments
The season of Advent is upon us, a time of preparation for Christmas. For Western Christians in liturgical churches—Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, some Presbyterians, etc.—Advent begins on November 30th. Eastern Christians following the Gregorian calendar began fasting from meat and dairy on November 15th, a full 40 days before we celebrate the Nativity of our Lord.
Growing up as an Evangelical without any exposure to Church calendars or seasons, Advent was a pretty foreign concept for me. So I want to share with you a bit about what I’ve learned over the last couple of years.
Here’s the thing though: I could bore you with a post about the spiritual benefits of Advent (and there are many), or about focusing on the birth of Jesus Christ instead of giving in to materialism or consumerism (a worthy pursuit, to be sure), or I could give you some niceties about remembering the way that Old Testament believers looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. But all of that would belie the fact that Advent is fundamentally apocalyptic.
Yes, you read that right. Don’t let Hallmark deceive you: Advent isn’t a cute calendar with little chocolates hiding behind numbered doors. Advent is an unkempt preacher standing on a street corner with a megaphone, proclaiming that the End is near.
Let’s take a step back: since the beginning, there has been something different about the way Christians observe the days, weeks, and seasons. The New Testament Church didn’t think about the Calendar in the same way as either their Jewish forebears or the surrounding Pagan cultures. It began with Sundays: Christians pretty quickly departed from the Jewish practice of holding services on Saturdays, switching to the first day of the week instead. This was no minor adjustment. The Jewish Sabbath is rooted in the Genesis account of Creation, and asks adherents to rest on the same day that God rested from His labors. By switching to Sundays, Christians proclaimed that Christ’s Resurrection was an event that took precedent over the very creation of the world. In fact, the Resurrection was the beginning of a New Creation—Jesus starts the Creation week from Genesis over again.
When will this new Creation Week end? In the eschaton, of course. By celebrating our services on Sundays, Christians bear witness to “already-and-not-yet” reality of our eschatology. A new Creation week has begun, but we will not reach its end until Jesus Christ returns in glory, to bring His followers into the new and eternal Sabbath of God.
So you see, it’s not just Advent—which we are about to return our focus to—that’s a bit obsessed with the apocalypse. There has always been an inherently eschatological way in which Christians think about calendars and the passage of time.
Shortly after they got our weeks straightened out, the early Church turned her attention to the seasons. Now, keep in mind that the Church was born into a surrounding Pagan culture that didn’t really think of time as being linear. The passing of each year was just another lap through the eternal cycle of things, no closer to any temporal telos than the year before. They had seasonal celebrations, to be sure, but they were very much focused on the here-and-now. They celebrated the harvest times, for instance, not because they pointed ahead to any deeper reality, but because there was food to put on the table and they wanted to thank their “gods” for it.
Not so with early Christian seasons, and Advent is a perfect example. In Western churches, Advent begins with the reading of the oh-so-apocalyptic passage from Mark 13:
“Jesus said to his disciples:
“Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.
It is like a man traveling abroad.
He leaves home and places his servants in charge,
each with his own work,
and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.
you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming,
whether in the evening, or at midnight,
or at cockcrow, or in the morning.
May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.
What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”.
Each Sunday in Advent in the West is marked with the lighting of candles, and our minds are drawn to the parable of the virgins trimming their wicks, so that when the bridegroom came they would not be unprepared.
In the East, Christians fast from meat and dairy for 40 days before Christmas, 40 being a particularly apocalyptic number, as it is reminiscent of the Flood in Genesis. And of course fasting reminds us that our hope is not in the things of this world, but in the coming of our Lord and Savior. The prayers and readings of the liturgical life of the Church begin to reflect the anticipation of the parousia:
“Christ our Judge commands us to be vigilant. â€¨We wait expectantly for His visitation, â€¨For He comes to be born of a Virgin.
At Your awesome second coming, O Christ, â€¨Number me with the sheep at Your right hand, â€¨For You took up Your abode in the flesh to save us.
At Your first coming to us, O Christ, â€¨You desired to save the race of Adam; â€¨When You come again to judge us, â€¨Show mercy on those who honor Your Holy Nativity. (from the compline service for Dec. 21st).
In Advent, Christ’s First Coming becomes the occasion for meditating on His Second Coming. We do remember the way Old Testament saints waited expectantly for Christ’s birth, but not as an exercise in sentimentality. Rather, we see in them a model of how we are to live out our own expectant waiting. We are called to focus more deeply on the reality that, while Christ came once as a helpless babe, His return will be both glorious and fearful.
Advent is not a holly, jolly time of year. It is a sober season of mortifying the flesh and anticipating Judgment Day. Like all of the ways in which Christians mark time, Advent points beyond time. It’s a reminder that December isn’t just the last month of the year—since Christ’s return is imminent, it could very well be the last month of History.
I’ll leave you with a thought: the next time someone in a public place wishes you a “merry Christmas” or “happy holidays” in the first few weeks in December, don’t respond in kind. After all, the Church has a Christmas season, but it doesn’t begin until December 25th and it only lasts 12 days. Instead, bear witness to how Christians mark time differently than the world, and respond with something a little more seasonally appropriate… perhaps the next time someone wishes you a “merry Christmas”, you can look them in the eye and say “watch and pray, for no man knows the hour…”
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