The First Sunday in Advent: A Spirituality of the Liturgical Year

You may have noticed a change in the décor around church this Sunday: perhaps there were some new missalettes in the pews or maybe your priest greeted you in his homily with a hearty “Happy New Year!” Yes, it’s beginning to look a lot like Advent in the church, despite the early appearance of Christmas music and décor outside. It is the First Sunday in Advent, the first Sunday in the liturgical books and so, logically, the beginning of the liturgical year. And just as this Sunday inaugurates Advent and sets the tone of the season, so too does this Sunday begin the cycle of feasts, feasts, and seasons and also help us to understand the theological nature of the liturgical year.

This Sunday’s readings (we’re in Year B now) remind us of our distance from God, who created us and to whom we desperately wish to return, and of God’s promise of salvation in the person of Jesus Christ. And even though Christ has already come to Earth, our salvation will not be fulfilled until he comes again on the last day. And so we turn to God, despite our imperfections, and, strengthened by God’s grace, await Christ’s return. It’s a little dark; but, then again, Advent is a little dark. I’ve always loved how, in the Northern Hemisphere at least, right at the time that winter begins to rear its ugly head, right when the days reach their shortest and the nights their longest, right when a little, primordial part of you begins to wonder if the world will ever be warm or bright again, we mark this dark season by lighting a new candle each Sunday and we celebrate our expectation of the coming of the Light of the World on December 25th. It’s incongruous, but the celebration lies in the incongruity. But of course, the triumph of light over darkness, of life over death, of good over evil, is not accomplished on December 25th and was not achieved on the day when Jesus Christ was born of Mary. That is not what we celebrate at Christmas. Think about it: the human infant is one of the most helpless and vulnerable of all the newborn creatures on earth. Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, could not have vanquished a fly, let alone darkness and death at his birth. It’s precisely this vulnerability, exemplifying God’s total humanity in Jesus Christ, which we celebrate at Christmas. Again, it seems that we are celebrating what is incongruous, what doesn’t fit. But what we are celebrating, in fact, at Christmas, in Advent, on this First Sunday of Advent, and throughout the liturgical year, is not what doesn’t fit, but how it all fits; that is, how each event memorialized in the liturgical year fits into God’s plan of salvation manifested in the person of Jesus Christ. And that salvific plan culminates in Christ’s redemptive death and resurrection, a theme that reverberates in each and every feast, fast, and season of the liturgical year.

As Raymond Brown rightly points out, even the familiar infancy narratives, which we will hear again at Christmas and the days that follow, hold within them the echoes of Christ’s coming passion, death, and resurrection.[1] The Gospel authors wrote about Jesus’ birth with his death and resurrection in mind–how could they not? We cannot have the Incarnation without the Passion, death, and resurrection and we cannot have the saving power of the end of Jesus’ human life without the redemptive power of its beginning. Nor can we have Jesus’ Incarnation, Passion, death, and resurrection without his ministry, his baptism, miracles, and Last Supper, his Ascension, his gift of the Holy Spirit, and his sacraments. Each celebration of the events of Christ’s historical life, each memorial of the saints and martyrs, each feast of Mary, of the Trinity, of the Holy Spirit, each celebration of the sacraments is a celebration of the facets of our all-encompassing salvation in the person of Jesus Christ. Liturgy, then, is like synecdoche [a figure of speech where a part is representative of the whole or the whole of a part]: we worship, give thanks, and remember a part for the whole of God’s saving work. Each Eucharistic celebration and each feast, fast, season, and solemnity attempts to celebrate the infinite in the immanent; the eternal in the singular moment; the entirety of salvation history in the particularity of one event.

Because the liturgical year is not centered upon a thing, just as our salvation is no thing, but a person: Jesus Christ. “The liturgical year is not,” as the liturgical scholar Angelus Häussling explained, “a mystery play based on the life of Jesus and inserted, not too skillfully, into the framework of an annual cycle for our spiritual enjoyment.”[2] The liturgy is not a celebration of past events; it is the celebration of a present person, Jesus Christ, who contains forever all he is and was and has done for us. Christian liturgy, then, is a living icon of Christ, and the liturgical year, further, is a living icon of our salvation in him–its breath provided by the Holy Spirit, who takes Christ out of his historical context and makes him present in our worship, and its heart beating with the rhythms of the seasons and the years. The liturgical year exemplifies how Christian worship is not simply liturgical act, but liturgical life, a life grafted onto Christ. And we celebrate Christ in the liturgical year through practices and rituals, prayers and readings particular to the day or season, all with the goal of becoming he who we celebrate: Jesus Christ, the child of God, salvation for the world.[3]

The Liturgical year is not the attempt of the Church to sanctify time or seasons, because the business of the Church (and the goal of the liturgy) is to sanctify people, not things. And people grow in holiness not by properly celebrating natural life cycles, either their own or Christ’s, because life in Christ has little to do with natural life cycles. It is not the cyclic rhythm of the year that is important, but the rhythm of Christ’s dying and rising, repeated in baptism, repeated with each Eucharistic celebration, and repeated in our ongoing conversion, each time we turn from sin and turn to Christ. This is the source of our sanctification. Likewise, we do not celebrate primarily a historical event or theological idea in each feast or season; instead, we celebrate how that event or idea manifests the eschatological once-for-all event of salvation. Here today, at the “beginning of the liturgical year,” we celebrate what has happened, what is happening, what has yet to happen: the long-awaited coming of the Messiah who will save humanity, Christ’s saving work enacted in the Body of Christ and through the working of the Holy Spirit, and the eschatological salvation of the world that is “already and not yet” achieved.

An Advent Wreath with a Paschal Candle at its center.

The celebration of this first Sunday of Advent, then, illustrates synecdochic nature of the liturgical year. At the beginning of the year we celebrate the long-awaited, hoped-for second coming of Christ, knowing all along that Christ has already come and has already saved us. And yet we still count the days until Christmas, we still must hear the call of the prophet to turn from sin and turn to life in Christ, still rely upon the sacraments to cleanse us of sin and bind us to Christ, because Christ’s saving work is not yet complete. This Sunday, like every Sunday, we celebrate God’s promise of salvation: the promise foretold by the prophets, announced by John the Baptist, manifested in the Incarnation, accomplished at Pascha, and whose final fulfillment is still awaited by the faithful here on earth.

 

[1] See Raymond Brown, An Adult Christ at Christmas (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1987).

[2] Cited in Adolf Adam, The Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990), 29.

[3] This is inspired by and drawn from lectures in Dr. Maxwell Johnson’s course on the Liturgical Year. For more on this topic, seek out his syllabus online or refer to his work on the liturgical year in The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity (2011) and Between Memory and Hope (2000).

2 responses to “The First Sunday in Advent: A Spirituality of the Liturgical Year

  1. Pingback: Three Things We’re Reading Today: The Sacred, Lots of Advent, and Justice | Oblation: Liturgy and Life·

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