By Rev. Dai Morgan
Last Sunday, church goers noticed a change in the worship setting. Purple has become the prominent color of the paraments and decorations in church sanctuaries and worship centers.
A set of four candles will be prominently displayed and each week one will be lit progressively, until all four will shine their lights. Scripture lessons featuring John the Baptist will be read to the congregation. And as Christmas moves closer, Christmas trees and other ornamentation will most likely be added.
This is the season of Advent. Today marks the second Sunday of Advent. It consists of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. In fact, Advent is the first season on the Church calendar.
Since this is the beginning of the Church year, I would like to devote this article to a brief explanation of the arrangement of the Christian year. The flow is not arbitrary. There is meaning and purpose in the overall order of the liturgical calendar.
The times of the year are logically arranged as follows: Advent, Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost. The important thing to understand is that in the span of one year, on the Western Church calendar, one can observe a condensed version of the history of God’s movement of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Let’s begin with the season in which we now find ourselves, Advent, the beginning of the year. It is recognized as a time of expectation and waiting. We wait for the coming of Jesus who is Immanuel, “God with us.”
Advent represents the time before the birth of Jesus. It is a time to connect with the Old Testament and the messianic messages of the Hebrew prophets. It is a time to prepare one’s heart and mind for an encounter with God’s presence.
The festival of Christmas follows Advent. Of course, it represents the birth of Jesus, the incarnation of God. In Jesus Christ, equally human and divine, Christians believe that God has been revealed in a concrete way. This short 12-day period is intensely joyous, expressed in singing, fellowship and gift giving.
The time of Epiphany comes next. Epiphany means “manifestation.” The day of Epiphany, Jan. 6, is commemorated as the visitation of the biblical Magi—thus first revealing or manifesting the presence of Christ to the gentile world. The days that follow Epiphany represent the time of the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. Gospel stories and the life of the historical Jesus are appropriate subjects.
Lent arrives on Ash Wednesday, 46 days before Easter. It is intended to be a somber period of 40 days of expectation and waiting—Sundays are never somber and the six Sundays of Lent are not counted. The expectation is for the death of Christ at the hands of humankind. The season focuses on the events in the life of Christ leading to his death on the cross. It is a time to focus on repentance and, in some traditions, penitence. Many observe the season with fasting or other acts of sacrifice and selflessness.
Easter is at the center of the Christian story and the hub of the Christian year. It is the glorious day of Christ’s resurrection and demonstration of God’s power over death. It is the most theologically personal and meaningful day of the year. It is a time of utmost joy.
Like the promise of springtime, in which they occur, the weeks following Easter are a time to express hope and optimism.
Pentecost Sunday comes on the 50th day following Easter. Pentecost commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit, empowering the Church. It is the time after the life of Jesus when his followers began the work of spreading the gospel message.
The weeks that follow Pentecost represents the Church Age. It is the longest period on the liturgical calendar. It represents the last 2,000 years of Church history. In fact, it represents the period in which we exist, today. It is a time to focus on the work and responsibility of being the Church.
And finally, this brings us around to the end of the year. However, an interesting thing happens when we return to start a new year. As we remember the experience and meaning of the previous year, Advent takes on an additional meaning. Our expectation in the new liturgical year can now be understood as waiting for the second coming of Christ, the Old Testament “Day of the Lord.”
Consequently, rather than a circle, we have a spiral. Each year is winding closer to the arrival of God in the world. With the coming of each new year, we begin anew with anticipation and expectation, waiting for God to be made known. We recreate the expectation of the birth of Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago. But, at the same time, we wait for Christ to come again.
Happy New Year (liturgically speaking). Advent is a good place to start.
The Rev. Dai Morgan is pastor of Living Spirit Ministry-Swissvale United Methodist Church.