Advent marks the start of the Church Year. Robert Webber, best known for his amazing (and lengthy!) series on worship, also wrote a great introduction to the Church Year for evangelicals called Ancient-Future Time. Here’s some of what he had to say about celebrating the Church Year in general, and then some on Advent in particular.
The Spirituality of the Church Year
The spiritual tradition of celebrating the Christian year was developed in the early church and has been passed down in history through the worship of the church. It enjoys biblical sanction, historical staying power, and contemporary relevance. It is the spiritual discipline of living in the pattern of Jesus’ saving life throughout the year.
How can the discipline of the Christian year do this? As an end to itself, the Christian year can’t. However, if we see the Christian year as an instrument through which we may be shaped by God’s saving events in Christ, then it is not the Christian year that accomplishes our spiritual pilgrimage but Christ himself who is the very content and meaning of the Christian year. Christian-year spirituality is nothing less than the calling to enter by faith into the incarnation, the life and ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus. As we enter the saving events of Jesus and especially the paschal (i.e. Easter) mystery in faith, Christ shapes us by the pattern of his own living and dying so that our living and dying in this world is a living and dying in him.
Where is this Christian discipline of the Christian year practiced? The answer: in the church. We are the people of the Christ event. Peter spoke directly to how the church witnesses to the meaning of time when he reminded the Christians of the dispersion, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, Gods own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9, italics added). The purpose of the church is to be a sign of the redemption as it declares the wonderful deeds of God in Christ accomplished in history and fulfilled at the end of time.
How does the church express the spirituality of being with Christ in his incarnation, manifestation to the world, death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again? How can we as members of the church participate in a present spirituality that is rooted in past events and anticipates a future event? The answer to this question is that we are shaped and formed spiritually by Christ in the church through a worship that continually orders the pattern of our spirituality into a remembrance of God’s saving deeds and the anticipation of the rule of God over all creation. Furthermore, for the Jew to commemorate the past is not merely to recall it as a past event but to commemorate it in such a way that it gives the present new meaning. Consequently, the past and the future converge on the present in such a way that it makes a difference in the worshipers’ experience now.
The Christian year represents the historical unfolding of the life of Christ and his sure return. Advent deals with the coming of Christ; Christmas, his birth; Epiphany, his manifestation to the Gentiles; Lent, his journey toward death; the Great Triduum, the last days of Jesus’ earthly life; Easter, the time to celebrate his resurrection; and Pentecost, the time to experience life in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Advent: A Time When God Breaks In on Us
During Advent we wait. In this time we recall Israel’s longing for the Messiah, and we learn to yearn for the second coming—the eschatological end of history as we know it and the beginning of the new heavens and new earth.
In the time of Isaiah, one of the central figures in Advent, Israel had grown stagnant. But through Isaiah God began to stir up the waters to renew Israel and bring the hope of new life. During Advent we turn to Isaiah to hear how God can stir up the waters of our dead spirituality and refresh us with a new spring of clear and lively water of life. Isaiah is the prophet above all prophets chosen for the Advent season. The Israelites had become indifferent to God and Gods claim over their lives. So Isaiah’s calling was to prepare the people so that God could break through their indifference and become real to them again. The message Isaiah delivered to Israel revived them and, even more, transcended their time and pointed to the coming of the Messiah. Today Isaiah’s message transcends our time and points not only to the Messiahs birth in Bethlehem but to the coming again of the Messiah, to the age of peace and God’s reign over the whole world. As the message of Isaiah turned the hearts of Israel toward spiritual renewal, so that message today in Advent or in any time when we need a fresh coming of God in our lives can stir up the waters of our stagnant spirituality and cause God to break in on us in a fresh way.
Advent is a time when we ask, even plead with God not to leave us alone, for when God leaves us to our own choices and turns us over to our own ways, we are certain to drift from him. Our indifference to God is soon turned into spiritual boredom, a boredom that leads to spiritual inertia and ultimate death to spiritual realities. Advent is a time to cry, “O God, turn me away from my indifference, create in me a heart of repentance, and lead me to the waters of spiritual refreshment.” Advent is not only about our repentance and conversion, it is also about the expectation of the Messiah who will come to deliver us. During Advent we look for the coming of the Messiah in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2-4) and the coming of the Messiah at the end of history (Isa. 65:17-25; Rev. 20-22).
If we want to break away from a spiritual life growing cold and a Christ who is becoming distant, we must be attentive to our spiritual discipline and long for God to break in on us with new life. When we do this, we experience the true meaning of Advent spirituality.