Here are my thoughts for the 1st Sunday in Advent. May this be a season of happiness and peace for you and your family.
There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the two most important dates on the Christian calendar are Christmas and Easter. But why are they so close together? Wouldn’t it be better to have scheduled the two events six months apart in order to maintain a semblance of balance in the calendar? Wouldn’t it have been better to have scheduled these two events in such a way as to maximize the impact of each date?
Christmas is the day we celebrate Christ’s birthday. It is interesting that when the church was in its own infancy, there was a feeling that we shouldn’t even celebrate His birth. Since the church was living at a time when the birthdays of other gods were celebrated, many felt that to celebrate Christ’s birthday would diminish its meaning.
Of course, the suggestion that the shepherds were in the fields the night of Christ’s birth puts his birth either in the late Fall, say November, or early Spring, say March. The actual date of December 25th wasn’t chosen until 336 AD, after Emperor Constantine made Christianity the Empire’s favorite religion. It was also chosen to co-opt the pagan celebration of Saturnalia. But prior to that time, January 2nd, March 21st, March 25th, April 18th, April 19th, November 17th, and November 20th all received consideration. (1) Now, if it had been up to me, I would have picked one of the spring dates.
But, if we celebrated Christmas in March or April, then there would be times when Easter and Christmas are at the same time (and even on the same date) and it would not be right or logical to be celebrating both Christ’s birth and death at the same time.
But why is Easter when it is? And who came up with that wonderful method for calculating when Easter occurs? (2) It seems to me that because the first Easter was held during Passover, Easter and Passover should occur at the same time. And while this does occur every few years, the methods used for the determination of the two dates do not match.
While it seems that Christmas was the decision of a single individual, Easter was decided by a committee. After the Council of Nicea met in 325 AD and settled the Arian controversy, they began debating how to determine the proper date for Easter. Other than stipulating that Easter be celebrated on a Sunday, the council could not resolve the matter and left it for another committee to make the final decision.
In part, the difficulty was due in part to the nature of the church. Churches in the eastern part of the Roman Empire wanted to follow the Jewish calendar because the majority of their members were Jewish converts; churches in the western part of the Roman Empire favored a date that matched the spring equinox because the majority of their members came from pagan roots.
It wasn’t until the beginning of the 18th century that churches in the west began using the method of Dionysius Exiguus where Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox. The problem of when Easter is scheduled wasn’t completely resolved because of flaws in the Julian calendar which had the beginning of spring (as determined by the spring equinox) slowly moving back into February.
Even with the development of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, there are still going to be differences between Easter as celebrated in western churches, eastern churches and Passover still exist. The actual date for Easter will vary over a period of some thirty-five days. That is because Easter is essentially based on a lunar cycle and the combination of lunar and solar cycles can get very complicated. (3)
Now, it really doesn’t matter who scheduled Christmas and Easter or when they actually occurred. What does matter is that it is not the day that we hold holy but rather because of who made it Holy. (4)
As it is right now, we spend six months of the year in “ordinary time” and then, when Thanksgiving rolls around, we madly rush through the four weeks of Advent to Christmas. We pause very briefly in January and February in order to set up things for Lent and Easter and follow it with the Easter Season leading up to Pentecost. Then we coast from June to November when we start it up all over again.
We see people who haven’t been to church in six months but who feel that somehow attendance now “validates their parking ticket” or somehow justifies their inactivity during the rest of the year. For so many people, the church and Christianity are these two dates and it is what you do on these two dates that matters most. But Christianity is not set by the calendar; it is set by what is in one’s heart.
So it is that we begin the Season of Advent, a time when we prepare for the Coming of Christ. And despite what some may say about the Gospel reading for today (5) being a description of the Rapture, we are not preparing for the end of the world but for the coming of the one person whose presence in this world can change the world. Too many people speak of these days as being part of the end times and use this passage from Matthew as part of their justification.
But the Rapture and any consideration of the End Times do not come from the Bible but from a single interpretation by a 19th century minister, John Darby. Granted, the concept of the Second Coming is not new. The people of the churches to whom Paul wrote (6) felt that the Second Coming was close at hand and they had stopped doing the work of the church. That is the basis for Paul’s warning in the Epistle lesson for today.
People were expecting Christ’s return and they had quit doing their own work and the work of the church in preparation for Christ’s Second Coming. But to stop doing what you should and are expected to be doing because you expect to be called into God’s Kingdom at any minute is as foolish as not expecting the Kingdom at all. One of the reasons for today’s Gospel reading is to point out that you need to be prepared at any time for the call.
But this preparation does not mean that you should walk around with an air about you or an attitude that says that you will be going and others won’t. Jesus held his greatest criticism for those who held themselves above others and felt that they were the only truly righteous ones. Having been told on too many occasions that I am doomed because I do not live my life as others dictate that it should be lived, I can understand why Jesus would say this and have such thoughts. If there is any hope in this world, it comes from the promise of salvation through Christ and not what others may say. There is no guarantee in this life other than the one that it is given to us through salvation.
The one thing that can destroy Christianity is the attitude that so many Christians have that they will be the ones who are taken in the moment described in the Gospel. From this attitude comes arrogance and that is not what Christianity is about. We are called to bring people to Christ, not scare them away. But we have to understand what it means when we say we are Christ’s disciples and when we seek to make others disciples..
The word “disciple” does not necessarily mean “a student of a teacher” but more “a follower of somebody.” Discipleship in the New Testament means to be a follower of Jesus, to go on a journey with Jesus. Journeying with Jesus also means to be in a community. Discipleship is not an individual journey but one done in the company of other disciples. While it is a journey on a road less traveled, it is a journey done in company with others who remember and celebrate the presence of Jesus in their lives.
And discipleship also means being compassionate. “Be compassionate as God is compassionate” is the defining mark of a follower of Jesus. Compassion is the fruit of the life in the Spirit and the ethos of the community of Jesus.
The Christian journey is a life lived from the inside out, a life in which the things we experience within — dreams, memories, images, and symbols, and the presence of him whom we encounter in deep silence — are in constant tension and dialogue with all that we experience without — people, events, joys, sorrows, and the presence of him whom we encounter in others. Thomas Merton repeats a suggestion of Douglas Steere that the absence of this tension might well produce the most pervasive form of violence present in contemporary society. “To allow one’s self to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns,” Merton writes, “to surrender to too many demands, to commit one’s self to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
One of the most critical tasks of the local church is to enable people to become “journeyers” rather than “wanderers.” This suggests that the leadership of a congregation needs to be serious about their own journeys, to the point where they are willing to share their experience with others, not as those who have arrived but as fellow journeyers able to receive as well as to give. . . .
In his Markings, Dag Hammarskjold records some of the often agonizing turning points that were the occasion of the deepening of his remarkable journey. One entry in this journal describes with particular wisdom that sense of creative tension which is the mark of wholeness. “The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you,” he writes, “the better you will hear what is sounding outside. And only he who listens can speak. Is this the starting of the road toward the union of your two dreams — to be allowed in clarity of mind to mirror life, and in purity of heart to mold it?” Ultimately, this is the question we all must ask, for it is the question Christ asks of us. (7)
We are faced with a challenge today. In light of the violence that seems to be so much a part of our society today, in light of the poverty and homelessness that seems to be so much a part of our lives today, in light of the injustice and oppression that seems to be the norm rather than the exception, what do we say? What do we do?
We can say that the violence, poverty, and oppression are signs of God’s wrath for the sins of unnamed souls. But when innocent children are killed and other lives are destroyed through senseless violence, will we cry out to God that it is His fault?
Our only answer to war seems to be more war. We hear today that the present administration is moving to fix the housing crisis. But they are not doing so to help homeless people find homes or let people keep the homes that they bought; rather, they are working to help the banks whose policies have helped to fuel the crisis not go out of business. The temple stood when Jesus threw out the money changers but it fell when the people sought war as the answer to oppression.
This is the Sunday we begin the journey that ends with the birth of Christ. We may not know when Christ was actually born but we have the guarantee that He was born and He came to bring peace on earth. The Old Testament reading today (8) speaks of the people turning their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks, and working with other nations so that war will be no more. If we are part of the community of Christ, then that is what we should be doing. If we are a part of the community of Christ, then we should be working to insure the sick are healed, the homeless have shelter, the hungry have food, the blind see and the deaf hear.
If we decide that we do not want to be a part of the community of Christ, then there is no guarantee as to what comes next. But if we decide to be a part of the community of Christ, then and only then do we have the guarantee.
(1) Adapted from http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/newsletter/2000/dec08.html
(2) The Astronomical Society of South Australia offers a “simple” method for calculating Easter up to and including 4099 AD. They even offer a computer program that will do the calculations for you. Go to http://www.assa.org.au/edm.html.
(3) Adapted from http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/newsletter/2000/apr20.html
(4) See footnote 1.
(5) Matthew 23: 36 – 44
(6) Romans 13: 11 – 14
(7) From Mutual Ministry by James C. Fenhagen
(8) Isaiah 2: 1 – 5