Christmas lights are popping up in the neighborhood and holiday tunes dance through the stores. It’s time for the yearly gluttony of eating and buying. It’s also time for Advent, a season of repentance, focused on watching and waiting for the coming of the Lord. The call to devotion and the call to consume compete for attention.
It is tempting to bemoan the incongruity, but this juxtaposition of spirit and flesh has been common in every age. Late medieval communities often held the Advent call to times of fasting and prayer alongside the unusual and Christmas rituals of cross-dressing, public drunkenness, gluttony, and the ongoing threat of mobs demanding “figgy pudding” and more from the wealthy residents.
Puritan opposition to Christmas was in part due to the reckless and dangerous behaviors present during the season. They also feared that the various feasts and fasts of the church year could distract from the primary emphasis of each Sunday as Resurrection Day. I value their emphasis on the Resurrection even as I celebrate the rhythms of the year. It simply reminds me of the value of proclaiming and hearing the Gospel each Sunday and feasting at the Lord’s Table.
Keeping the focus on God’s redeeming action has always been a challenge. Popular trends can distract us from observing the rhythms of the church year. It’s easy to feel caught between the demands of work, family, and life with the call to worship God in all things. I believe the rhythm of the year can help us as we face this tension. Learning the simple rhythms of the year can help us to grow into a life of devotion over time. We don’t have to escape the culture but learn small ways of turning our hearts toward the Lord.
Ancient Israel felt the tension of surrounding cultures dedicated to land gods. Their harvest festivals included sexual deviancy and other forbidden behaviors. The Lord instructed Israel to turn the harvest seasons into times of remembrance of his grace. During the barley festival, Israel celebrated the Passover feast. During the wheat harvest, Israel celebrated the feast of Pentecost, and during the fruit harvest, Israel celebrated the feast of Booths. Historical events that marked God’s redeeming action in their midst became the focal point of the celebration. While surrounding cultures were celebrating harvest feasts, Israel was remembering the Lord’s action as He redeemed them from Egypt, gave them the Ten Commandments, and led them through the wilderness. These joyful celebrations were a form of festal memory. As the Hebrews rehearsed patterns of trust in God’s faithfulness they were being re-oriented in time and space toward a life of true worship.
Active remembering is not simply thinking or speaking about God’s redeeming action. It includes specific foods, music, movement, and reflection. This physical and spiritual remembering is making the past present. The descendants in the Promised Land could say that they were slaves in Egypt redeemed by the Lord. In Deuteronomy, the parent is exhorted to train the child in the midst of all the postures of a typical day: standing, seated, lying down, and walking. These daily actions and festal actions were ways of training the memory and the body in the way of the Lord.
I would suggest that the church year is based on this same way of involving the body and the heart in remembering God’s goodness in our midst. In the middle of a world turned away from God, we re-turn to the Lord through the rhythm of daily prayer, weekly worship, and yearly cycles of remembering. The feasts and fasts of the church year are times set aside for remembering the historical action of God in Jesus Christ. As we remember, we bring the range of human emotions and experiences from birth to death into worship. We rehearse in worship, in song, in Scripture, and in story, the grief of pain and loss, the hope of God’s faithfulness, and the joy of His surprise coming.