Advent & Christmas: they’re not the same thing (Ode to a Christian Calendar)

Munch-melancholyWell, it’s the Eve of Christmas season. Yes, that’s right, Christmas is not only an entire season in the Church calendar, but it’s a season that is distinct from Advent.

I know many in the global church know this fact, but I only learned it a couple of years ago, and each year it seems I have to be reminded. (Hopefully with this post, I can start internalizing it some.)

I find it interesting that we in the West have not only removed the “seasonal” aspects of the holiday, but have reduced this nearly two-month-long Advent/Christmas time into a single day on which we put most of our attention.

So why is the calendar structured like this? And what do we lose when we boil this down to one day?

The early church was very wise as to the way humans work. For the most important of things we are to celebrate, they understood three things about us as spiritual beings: celebration intention, it takes time, and it takes preparation.

That first thing is handled by us simply having a church calendar in the first place; and with it, intentional times set aside to celebrate certain aspects of Christ’s life breaking into our own lives. This is why Christmas is during the Winter solstice, rather than in the Spring or early Summer, when Jesus probably actually born: Passover (and therefore Lent and Easter) is in the Spring, and they didn’t want to lump everything together. The calendar is about being intentional about celebrating that something happened, more than precisely when it happened.

Secondly, celebration takes time. Yes, the Church calendar has single “Holy Days” like celebrating the lives of the saints or things like Jesus being presented at the temple, but the biggest, most pivotal moments in cosmic history find their place in the calendar in entire Church seasons. The ancients knew that human beings needed not only a day to celebrate something, but weeks to do it.

And not only that, this same calendar is repeated every single year, because we sometimes not only have “off days”, but also “off weeks”. But we can relax, knowing that there’s always next year (as I had to do this past Lent).

Humans are fickle, apathetic, and often numb to that which is most important (especially those more joyful things). And so, to have weeks, in community (and not just with people you see two or three times a year), dwelling deeply on these things lets us press these truths all the way more into our hearts and lives.

Lastly, this year was the first year I noticed the beautiful symmetry of the Church Calendar. Advent is deeply similar to Lent. Both of the most celebratory seasons of the Church Calendar–Christmas and Easter–are preceded by weeks that are meant to be marked by meditation and repentance.

To truly celebrate anything, we need time for preparation. We need to spend time seeing why there is a reason to celebrate.

I find it disappointing that not only do we as a culture tend to focus only on the celebratory aspects to the exclusion of a time of preparation, but we also cut short our celebration to one day and miss out on the time needed to really enjoy God and others in it. In the end, I fear that we are missing out on such deep wells of joy and celebration by continuing to do things the way we’ve often done them.

(As N.T. Wright has beautifully pointed out, we often do the same thing to Easter.)

And so, may I propose that the best way that the Church can “take Christmas back” is not by fighting for prefixes or titles or public expressions, but living as if Christmas was as big of a deal as it is?

As a protest to the way the world works, and the ruts we as a Church often fall into, I hope and pray that we as Christians can take back these two months–one for preparation, one for celebration. I’d love to see us repent and meditate such that people think we’re being dramatic, and then explode into jubilant celebration and joy as the Christmas season arrives.

[image credit: “Melancholy” by Edvard Munch]


7 thoughts on “Advent & Christmas: they’re not the same thing (Ode to a Christian Calendar)

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