For those of you who might not know, Advent is a season of reflection that many Christians set aside in order to meditate upon and celebrate the birth (or advent) of Jesus Christ. There are, of course, a great variety of Advent traditions, but most churches that celebrate Advent, center the season’s events around a special wreath with five candles, each with a special significance. The white candle always represents Christ, while the other four vary. Some churches use the other four to emphasize some of the important themes of the season (e.g. Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love), while others use the four candles to progress through the Christmas story itself (e.g. Prophecy, Bethlehem, Angels, Shepherds).
Now, most people would see the importance of celebrating Christmas for Christians (notice how “Christ” is part of both words …), but why set aside five weeks to do so? In reality, Advent is only a small part of the larger Christian calendar. Depending on your branch of Christianity, this calendar gets full pretty fast! So why all feasts, events, remembrances, etc?
The early church understood something very important: how we order our time, plays a large part in orienting our identity.
I don’t know if “we are what we eat,” but I can guarantee that, to a large extent, “we are what we do.”
The earliest Christians wanted to make sure that throughout the year various holidays and celebrations would keep them focused on who they were: the people of God awaiting their risen Lord. To this day, almost all Christian churches continue to employ some sort of church calendar for this very purpose, even if it’s nothing more than a special worship service to mark Easter and Christmas.
Photo by elPadawan
Extended seasons of Christian reflection are important because there are so many competing systems trying to order the Christian’s time, and thus his or her life and our world.
Some systems of timekeeping are imposed upon us. Think about school, for example. As a child my entire year and life revolved around whether or not I was in class. Rather than the four seasons of Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall, my life was “Cold School,” “Last Part of School,” “No School!!!,” and finally “Schoool! Noooooo!” I came to see myself primarily as a student, and the school seasons came to dictate my mood, feelings, actions, and even self-perception for any given part of the year.
Other seasons we choose to organize our time around, such as sports seasons. I love football (college and pro), and its shows. I get a little more spring in my step come August (It’s almost Football Christmas!), and I come down from my emotional high fairly soon after the Super Bowl. It’s a long, cold, bitter sports winter between February and August for me. It’s so bad, I tried out the XFL one time when it was still on. “Football Season” is a very real season of life each year for me, one full of celebrations, meaningful rituals (BBQ!), and unfortunately often mourning, given some of the teams I cheer for.
One of the best ways to reinforce a Christian identity is to order the calendar year around Christian events, rituals, and remembrances. Some churches will remember and celebrate Jesus’ advent on one Sunday they choose in December (though Christmas does actually fall on a Sunday this year). Our church will remember it for five weeks. Thus, while no Christian ever actually forgets Christmas, for our community, the events and significance of Christ’s birth will be at the forefront of our minds for an extended period of time, shaping how we see ourselves, our lives, and our world.
Some branches of the Church will immediately transition into the season of Epiphany. Our congregation will rejoin them on the calendar at Lent/Easter. From there some churches will include other important seasons like Kingdomtime as they await the arrival of Advent once again. Though all of these seasons of church life congregations will be remembering and rehearsing what God has done, what He is doing, and what He will do — and who they are as a result of all this.
Do you have to celebrate Advent to be a good Christian? I’m definitely not saying that. What I am saying is that seasons of the church calendar, such as Advent, are incredibly powerful tools for ordering time — and thus a sense of identity and purpose — year round. Why not take advantage of them, especially with so many other systems for ordering time competing for your attention, some imposed and some by your own choice?
Keeping Christ at the forefront of our lives can start with our calendars!