We are now at the beginning of the season of ADVENT. Advent opens the new “Church Year,” being the first of the liturgical seasons. This progression of seasons—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter (concluding with the Day of Pentecost)—can be called “Sacred Time” because this is the telling of how our redemption through Jesus Christ was accomplished. For the past several months, we have been in Ordinary Time, not meaning “routine” but in the sense that those Sundays after Pentecost are numbered successively (from ordinal—a specified sequence). The Sundays after Pentecost are part of the liturgical year, but they are NOT (properly speaking) a “Church season” in the way that Advent, Easter, etc. are. I feel that it is quite important to keep this distinction between Sacred Time and Ordinary Time for two reasons: (1) to bring greater emphasis to the distinctive purpose of each one of the proper liturgical seasons; and (2) to bring better focus upon the single, cohesive story that is told from Advent 1 until the Day of Pentecost.
Advent is a tough case! To begin with, the Church has to work hard to observe Advent with integrity, not selling-out to the instant gratification of the secular culture’s holiday season, which is at cross-purposes with Advent’s message. It is telling that we have to keep reminding ourselves that Advent is not Christmas! In our culture’s most exuberant, hustle-bustle time of year, Advent is a quiet, introverted time calling for waiting and reflection. In the most sentimental time of year. Advent is not at all sentimental—in fact, it has quite a sharp edge to it! And when culture is stringing lights everywhere inside and out. Advent’s dark liturgical color shows that this Church season accepts and mirrors this time of year when the days are shortest, knowing that this darkness should be embraced and entered rather than contradicted.
In addition to all of that. Advent presents other challenges to our Christian life and worship. To me, this is the most complex of all of the Church seasons. The reason for this is that Advent has several layers to it [you were wondering about that “purple onion” title, weren’t you?!]. These four weeks interweave themes of future, present, and past and each one has to be addressed: (1) the Second Coming of Christ [1st Sunday—this is always the first theme of Advent], (2) our own waiting and preparation for Christ in life and our experience of Him [2nd and 3rd Sundays re: John the Baptist]; and (3) the account of the annunciation of Jesus’ birth to Mary and Joseph [4th Sunday]. That’s a lot to pack into a relatively short period of time, and it takes real discipline for us to develop and keep a focus on the very different thing the Church is doing at this time of year. That disciplined focus is exactly what the liturgy is intended to help you find, through its Scriptures, the words to the hymns, in ritual, in the content of the prayers, in the liturgy’s inwardness and restraint.
My hope and prayer is that we will all know this wondrous time for everything that it is. I pray that you will find that Advent is so much more than “getting ready for Christmas.” We are preparing to meet Christ—who was, and is, and is to come.
The Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, Diocese of Virgina, res.