Dispelling many misconceptions or thin understandings of the ancient patterns of Christianity marking its days and years faithfully is particularly important during the season of Advent.
Liturgical scholar and theologian Laurence Hull Stookey’s book, “Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church,” is especially helpful in this endeavor.
This text on the liturgical year fleshes out the theological rationale for the rituals and practices common among many Western Christians.
For example, Stookey observes this about Advent: “The primary focus of Advent is on what is popularly called ‘the second coming.’ Thus Advent concerns the future of the Risen One, who will judge wickedness and prevail over every evil.”
He continues, “Advent is the celebration of the promise that Christ will bring an end to all that is contrary to the ways of God; the resurrection of Jesus is the first sign of this destruction of the powers of death, the inauguration and anticipation of what is yet to come in fullness.
“As such, the opening Sundays of Advent bring to sharp focus themes that in the lectionary system have been accumulating for some weeks; for as the lectionary year closes, the gospel readings, in particular, deal with signs of the end,” Stookey concludes.
For many, last Sunday was the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. Or, worse, it was the Sunday when the local church should be just like the local radio station, expecting to open the hymnal to the “greatest hits” of Christmas hymns.
Indeed, a liturgically observant worship planner comes off like Scrooge himself, explaining (hopefully patiently!) that the most popular Christmas Eve service hymns are, indeed, only for then.
For now, worshippers are to enjoy the ponderous somberness of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” for “the primary focus of Advent” is about “signs of the end.”
The longer I have observed the Advent season, the more I have come to love its contrary spirit, drawing us away from the immediate gratification brought on by Black Friday sales and sometimes challenging times of family gatherings or one’s first bout of “blue Christmas” depression.
On the first Sunday, we heard texts from the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament calling us to remember that the world is not measured by the “powers that be” but by the faithful witness of the church anticipating.
We remember and reaffirm this faith, even as the texts of Advent gain another year’s distance from the first time such texts were heard and inspired hope among God’s people in captivity, oppression or just enduring the long doldrums of years turning into decades into centuries into millennia.
I hope from many pulpits last Sunday that the good word of Advent’s first Sunday was heard. It is to be a slower start than most expect, yet we need the time to ponder, to wait and to receive at God’s pace, not our own.
We need faithful Christians who do not rush by the needs of the many in our neighborhoods and nations and engage in ministries of compassion, justice, solidarity and peacemaking on grand and local scales alike.
We need churches to rise up from worries about poinsettia placement and enter into the aching questions vexing the hearts of the first-time worshipper in the pews and welcome the stranger at our doors and borders.
Waiting for the Lord is not just fairytale talk for the four Sunday mornings before Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
The Sundays of Advent are a time not to be the church complacent, but the church expectant, acting out in the here and now the fullness of the gospel that shapes us.
Being a body of believers who is found not yearning for the “sweet by-and-by” but looking expectantly for the Lord to come and be involved in the here and now pain of the world as well.
Jerrod H. Hugenot is the associate executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of New York State. He blogs at Preaching and Pondering, where a version of this article first appeared. It is used with permission.