Hearing the Still, Small Voice {Book Club}

Hello Velvet Ashes ladies! I am so honored to get to be back in this space, writing for you all. It’s been over two years since I last wrote a post for you; that time, it was something to do with my second book, Cracking Up, though heck if I can remember what I wrote. (Clearly, it was most memorable!)

Today I get to introduce you all to the church year. I suspect quite a few of you know quite a bit about the church year, in which case, consider this a review. For those of you for whom the church year is brand new (or nearly so), here is a very brief overview of how the church tells time.

We begin in Advent, which starts four Sundays before Christmas. This year, the first Sunday of Advent (which is also the first day of the new church year) was November 27, the earliest it can be. Advent swells over four Sundays of waiting and preparation and joyful expectancy until it crescendos to a thrilling high point: midnight on Christmas Eve, ushering in Christmastide. The 12 Days of Christmas are days of joyful celebration—Christ the Saviour is here! Christmas ends on the Feast of Epiphany, when we remember the coming of the Magi to the Christ Child. After Epiphany comes the first season of Ordinary Time.

After a few weeks (or a couple of months) of Ordinary Time comes Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Lent, like Advent, is a season of preparation. Unlike Advent, which tends to have a joyful tone, Lent is somber. It begins with the mark of the ashes, a reminder of our mortality, and it ends with the Triduum, the three days of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and entombment. It is a season of penitence and reflection and treading the long road to Jerusalem with Jesus.

But the story—and the year—don’t end there! After Lent comes Easter—the longest celebration of the year! For 50 days we celebrate the mystery of Christ’s resurrection (mystery here is a theological term referring to something we can’t fully comprehend). On day 40 of Easter we celebrate Ascension, when Jesus returned to the Father and the disciples returned to Jerusalem to await the promised Comforter. Ten days later, on Pentecost, we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to the gathered disciples—the birth of the church.

Following Pentecost is another season of Ordinary Time, which stretches from sometime in May or June until Advent rolls around again at the end of November. It’s a long season, almost half the year, and in the circle of the church year it represents the life of the church, the unfolding, ongoing history of the Jesus-followers, the history that you and I are living (and making).

So there it is, the church year in a nutshell. There is, of course, a lot more to it than this—I’ve been living these seasons for well over a decade now, and every year I learn something new. As we walk through this year together, I’ll be sharing some of those things with you—and I hope you’ll share your traditions and experiences and “ahas!” with me.

Before we begin, though, I must issue a caveat (or maybe it’s permission?). Insofar as the seasons help you pay attention to Jesus and what He’s doing in your life and the life of the world, by all means live into them. But if the church year is just One More Thing, if it’s turning you into a frenetic hive of activity and busyness, running hither and yon to “do the church year right”—well, I say, ditch it. It’s a tool to point you to Christ, and if it’s not doing that, better to live without it.

Having said that, I will also say that I hope that’s not your experience! I’ve discovered so much richness in the seasons, and I hope you will, too. The most important gift of living the church year is that it helps me to remember the things that I am so prone to forget—the things that God is forever whispering to our deaf hearts: I love you with an everlasting love. I am with you. I will never leave you nor forsake you. You are written on the palms of my hands. You are mine. Wherever you go, I will go with you. Wherever you are, I am there with you. I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. 

Because God’s voice is a still, small whisper, and our world operates on shrill, large-scale shouting, I usually miss His voice. But the seasons of the church year remind me to turn off the noise (both the noise out there in the world, and the noise in here, in my mind, which teems with loud thoughts), and listen with the ears of my heart for the quiet voice of God.

Right now, it is Advent. Despite the commercial hype that is December in America (and sadly, elsewhere, too), Advent in the church has historically been a season of quiet, of stripping down, of fasting. Its liturgical color is purple, the color of repentance. It is a season of slowing down so that we might attend to the mystery that is the Incarnation—the amazing mystery of God-with-us, God inhabiting human flesh, God born as a baby. It is a mystery that defies all our expectations, and pushes the limits of our imaginations.

How often do we stop to think about what Incarnation really means? God—the uncontainable, infinite, eternal Spirit who created the cosmos—now contained in His creation, in the cramped finitude of human flesh.

That’s not the sort of thing you can comprehend in an hour, or a day. It takes a lifetime for the truth to settle into our souls that God loves us so much He was willing to become one of us, to shrink Himself to our small stature. In their wisdom our forebears in faith knew this; they knew that we would need a long time to ponder the mystery of Incarnation. And so they gave us Advent, four weeks to ponder and pray and prepare—not just once but year after year after year.

This year, as most years, Advent snuck up on me. My Advent wreath was ready the night before Advent began, but I wasn’t. I’m still not. And that is why I am so grateful for the church’s calendar. It gives me time to not be ready, time to prepare. Slowly.

In the coming days and weeks my family will read all our favorite Christmas stories, we will hang lights and garlands and bring home a tree and trim it, and we’ll listen to our favorite Christmas songs and buy gifts and wrap them and merrily deck the halls.

But for now, we have only the Advent wreath with its four tall tapers, a silent herald of good things to come—and of good things already here. Tonight at dinner we lit one candle and sang the first verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” We do this every night in Advent. And each night this ritual creates a little pause in my evening, a moment when the flickering candle flame and our voices raised in song remind me that, however dark it may be, God is right here with us, circling this table, holding our hands, holding us.

What do you want to remember from the introduction and section about Advent in The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God In the Church YearWhat invitation are you sensing from the Holy Spirit this season?

P.S. The other weeks in December we are going to read short stories again. Next week: The Christmas Wreck by Frank Stockton, December 20th: How Christmas Came to the Santa Maria Flats by Elia W. Peattie, and December 27th: The Pony Engine and the Pacific Express by William Dean Howells.

13 Comments

  1. Phyllis December 6, 2016

    I am so excited about this book! Thank you, Velvet Ashes and Kimberlee! I have a long comment inside of me waiting to get out, but I guess it will have to wait until tomorrow now, since our family Advent time went long. 🙂 Now it’s late, and I’m tired.

    1. Kimberlee Conway Ireton December 6, 2016

      Hi Phyllis! I’m so glad you’re excited about the book–and I look forward to reading that long comment as soon as you have a chance to write it! (And good for you for putting sleep at the top of the priority list. Rest is one of God’s best gifts to us, and we honor Him when we receive it.)

  2. Amy Young December 6, 2016

    Kimberlee, you have such an inviting way of explaining the church calendar. Thank you. One of the ways I practice advent is by either lighting a candle or turning on the Christmas tree lights. There is just something about light that helps me reflect on The Light of the world.

    1. Kimberlee Conway Ireton December 6, 2016

      Amy, Lighting candles is one of the central rituals of my faith–we do it every night when we gather at the table to feast together. During Advent, we have the wreath, which makes the Advent candle-lighting ritual unique; and we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” as we light the candles. I agree with you: there is something about light that points so clearly and beautifully and viscerally to the Light of the world. My very favorite name for Jesus is Dayspring, an Advent-themed title which is yet another way to remember that He is the Light, always shining, even in the darkness of my winter days.

  3. Phyllis December 7, 2016

    I love Advent! How Advent and the Christmas season play out are actually some of my favourite parts of life here. Christmas is kind of an afterthought in post-Soviet countries; the New Year is the big holiday, with the tree, presents, Santa-ish figure, and everything being for that day, not Christmas. I have known people who moved here and were depressed, because the month of December is not very festive, and Christmas isn’t very visible. I, however, LOVE it. This way of doing things means that we have a nice, quiet Advent. Holiday preparations are going on, but they are preparations, not parties and feasting yet. This gives our family the freedom to slowly prepare our hearts, before we just into a full holiday season and TWO Christmases! (I liked to see the nod to the Eastern calendar in our book. We’re at least mostly on the Eastern church calendar here.) When all the extra stuff is thrown over to New Year, Christmas can be really focused on Christ.

    About the book: Kimberlee says, “Observing the seasons of the church year also helps us embrace the church’s telling of time instead of our culture’s.” Yes. And also–conversely–it ties us into traditional folk culture here, too. I have loved learning about the church calendar and the ties it has to things that mostly the older generation here knows and does. Often it’s been a good conversation starter for me with neighbours. Usually they know the traditional part, and I’ve tried to learn the Biblical part, and we get to put the two together as we talk.

    When Amy first mentioned this book, I didn’t know if I would be reading it or not, but I was inspired to get back into the church year. That’s the invitation the Holy Spirit has for me. Advent always happens in our family, but the rest has come and gone at times. Back when our older children were little, I dove into the church year and really lived it with them, especially on a child level. Now I want to live it for myself. I also want to see it come alive for our youngest, because the little guy missed out on what his older siblings experienced when I was more tied in. And seeing our older ones grow up into what we have now is a beautiful thing, too; our Advent this year is so thoughtful and beautiful (when they’re not all being silly!).

    1. Amy Young December 8, 2016

      Phyllis, I loved reading through your comment :). It was like we are sitting around in a room and it was your turn to chat. Thanks for sharing about where you’re living, what Advent is like in post-Soviet areas, your family, and your own journey! (And even a nod to the silliness comment!)

    2. Kimberlee Conway Ireton December 8, 2016

      Phyllis, What a wonderful glimpse into your life in Eastern Europe (or maybe Western Asia?). Thanks for sharing the slow way that Advent unfolds for you and your family without all the consumer hype that we have to constantly fight against here in the States. I especially found fascinating the way that living the church seasons ties you to traditional folk culture–that is one of the things I love about the church year, too, the way it ties us to the past.

  4. Raven December 7, 2016

    Having celebrated Christmas away from family and friends, I knew not to have big expectations. This year has been different, yes living in a different culture, but more I think because of the stark contrast of how it was celebrated last year. There was so much last year and I miss it so, but the quietness of this Christmas season here (no one has even mentioned Christmas here yet) has made a great space for this.

    I loved what you said, “God’s voice is a still, small whisper” and I too miss it at times, but this also is reminding me to make sure the noise doesn’t becoming overwhelming as I meet God in this way. Trading my calendar for God’s calendar this season and trying to find rest in his timing.

    1. Kimberlee Conway Ireton December 8, 2016

      Phyllis, What a wonderful glimpse into your life in Eastern Europe (or maybe Western Asia?). Thanks for sharing the slow way that Advent unfolds for you and your family without all the consumer hype that we have to constantly fight against here in the States. I especially found fascinating the way that living the church seasons ties you to traditional folk culture–that is one of the things I love about the church year, too, the way it ties us to the past.

    2. Kimberlee Conway Ireton December 8, 2016

      Raven, I’m sorry you’re missing the fullness of last year’s Christmas celebration. But good for you for finding the gift of quiet that the starkness of this year’s celebration (or rather lack of celebration) brings. In this season that has so many resonances and memories and expectations attached to it, I pray that the quiet will allow you to clearly hear God’s ever-present, always-loving whisper.

  5. Faith De La Cour December 9, 2016

    For nearly 30 years, Christmas as a M in Japan was a big evangelistic outreach–providing opportunities to share the good news when people were most interested from their curiosity of our “culture.” I don’t know how much genuine fruit there was from the efforts, but it left me feeling exhausted and disconnected from anticipating the coming of Christ. During my early adult years, advent was celebrated–by family and my church–and I cherished it. When I got married, my husband who hadn’t come from that background, didn’t embrace it, and then in our church plant, a teammate who loved advent killed it for him in the way she presented it. I spent several of those years reading personally through advent meditations by N.T. Wright and others which helped to ground me in the midst of the pouring out to others.

    After several years of what I’ll call “Christmas Burnout” I am again practicing advent–and while I don’t have a “wreath” I do have candles and a designated place to return to each day as a reminder and an act of worship. I am using the guide prepared by Wheaton College this year. It’s text is taken from 1 Corinthians 13–not the usual advent texts, but for me as a member care professional, it has brought some life to this time of reflection on our Love Divine…and I am daily reminded of the need to demonstrate love through kindness (week 1) and this week that love is not irritable (that one came back at me yesterday after an altercation with a son). We are in a church that has scrapped the trappings of the church calendar (oh, they have their own, but it is more functional and “strategic”) and I again thirst for the rhythms of this kind of worship. I look forward to following it with you this year.

    1. Kimberlee Conway Ireton December 9, 2016

      Dear Faith, my goodness, you’ve been through it! I’m glad that in the midst of the exhaustion, burnout, and over-execution of Advent and Christmas you were able to find writers who grounded you in Christ. To my mind, that’s the whole purpose of the church year: to root us and ground us more deeply in Christ. I’m so glad you’re joining us for this journey, and I hope that our walk together through the church calendar this year will be one that refreshes you and draws you ever more deeply into God’s heart of love.

    2. Phyllis December 10, 2016

      Yes! Why don’t we hear about specifically Christmas burnout in the ministry world? I think if I had any kind of platform to make recommendations from, I would suggest that overseas workers and pastors took an Advent/Christmas season off every few years. Not a “furlough” Christmas, unless that would really be deeply restful to them personally, but actually a season away from it all, a season of being ministered to instead of ministering to others.

      It was only about 7 years of Christmases where we were involved in and responsible for everything, and that was enough for me to feel some real burnout. I held on to my sanity some by making a big distinction in the two Christmases we have. When possible Dec. 25 was family Christmas (because no one else was celebrating), and January 7 was a day to all-out make a beautiful holiday for everyone else.

      Then a few years ago our roles changed, and now we’re not in church leadership. Being able to just sit and take in the beauty of the whole season has been so wonderful to me. I feel such awe when I experience a lovely church service and then just get up and walk home afterwards: no direction, no planning, no cleanup afterwards required from me.

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