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 Year? What 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.