The church year rather suits me. I’ve known this for a long time, realizing it more and more as the years progress. It’s not a surprise. I grew up in a family where our lives centered around the church. Not only were each of us involved actively in worship, education, music and mission work, but we brought the church into our home, both through people who came to share meals and special events with us, but also through a family religious practice. Through prayers before meals, weekly Advent or Lenten devotionals, and more, the faith we observed on Sundays took root in our home, day by day. It is an enduring gift for which my sister and I, both, are grateful.
Still, it’s not church life in general that I refer to here, but the Church Year that seems to suit me – that is, the liturgical cycle of scripture readings and observances that begin in Advent, moving on to Christmas and Epiphany, then to Lent, from Ash Wednesday through to Holy Week and Easter, and on to Pentecost. Even the long progression of “Ordinary Time” from Pentecost through to Thanksgiving and the last Sunday of the year has its familiar rhythm for me. Though the lectionary readings are established on a three-year cycle, the pattern repeats itself annually. After a lifetime in the church, and a career as a pastor, the rhythm of church life has left its mark on me.
Year after year, Advent returns. Established as the four Sundays preceding Christmas, Advent is a time for preparation and ready-making as we both remember and anticipate the coming of infinite, everlasting, heavenly love into the world. Each year, we work to make room in our hearts and our busy lives for the coming of the Child of Bethlehem, a small, helpless, dependent little baby full of divine potential. We prepare, too, for the coming of heavenly ways into the daily fabric of our lives.
But it is worth raising the question: if God has come, and is coming into the world, time and again, year after year, as a source of boundless, endless love and compassion, made known in a child born more than two thousand years ago, why is it we still need to prepare? Christ has come – was born, lived, taught, healed, arrested, executed, buried, resurrected and ascended. Our faith tells us this. It’s been passed down to us from our parents and grandparents, from generation to generation across cultures and continents. Why, after all this time, do we still make room?
Simply put, we observe Advent year after year because God’s ways of love and compassion are not fully known by everyone, everywhere. And if we are honest, God’s ways of love and compassion are not fully known by us, even – the church, the very ones who make this observation year in and year out. Heavenly love can be illusive, and compassion, fleeting. Too easily our hearts – my heart – can be swayed by the ways of the world, ways that often are selfish or heartless, ways that seek to meet our own needs at the exclusion of the needs of others.
The ways of the world often lead us to independence and self-reliance, even isolation. But our faith invites and challenges us to inter-dependence, calling us to live in community, offering care and service to others. So we keep practicing our faith, year after year. We establish patterns and practices that help us to know God’s will and God’s ways, and to make them our own. We seek God’s presence in the world, offering our lives in love and faithful service.
This year, Advent begins on December’s first Sunday. Our annual season of preparation commences. Individually and as a church family, we will make room for the Christ child, setting up a divine nursery in the spare bedroom of our hearts, and setting in supplies to nurture and love that child, and the hope he promises, until he grows into full adulthood within us, inspiring our days and our ways for a lifetime of hope, faith and service.
See you in church!