Telling time is never easy. I don’t just mean how twice a year we adjust our clocks, or even how most of us work from several calendars simultaneously—school year, shopping days until Christmas, fiscal, Hallmark, family, work, and on the list goes.
I’m thinking specifically about the rhythms whereby Christianity tells time, the Christian year. The new year begins with the first Sunday of Advent, followed by Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, Pentecost, Ordinary time, and finally Christ the King Sunday, at which point it starts all over again. Whenever I mention this calendar to my students in Introduction to Worship, everyone nods in agreement as if it were the most familiar thing in the world. “Oh yeah, we know that calendar. What else are we covering today?” But then I give them a short quiz, and it turns out, they don’t know it like they thought. If that’s true for seminarians, I suspect it could be true for many congregants, perhaps a few ministers as well.
Some of the questions I ask are trivial, like “What does the word Lent mean?” The answer surprises a lot of folks, “spring.” Or “Why are the Sundays after Pentecost called ordinary?” It’s not because of the long, dry stretch that spans the summer, you know, just plain old ordinary days. Perhaps you recall in math classes how there are cardinal and ordinal ways of counting. Cardinal means “one, two, three…” But ordinal means “first, second, third…” We measure ordinary time as “the first Sunday after Pentecost,” etc. There’s no such thing as ordinary as in plain, nothing happening. Christ is always showing up, even when the doors are locked, at least as John tells it in the 20th chapter of his Gospel.
One complicating factor this time of year is the difference between the Christian calendar and the way J C Penney and other retailers count time. We know all about how many shopping days are left, so I won’t belabor that. But there’s another difficulty as well. Advent (the term means “coming”) spans the four Sundays prior to Christmas and invites us to wait for the coming of the Christ. Churches don’t always seem clear on which coming of Christ we are anticipating, first or second. Some aspects of Advent stress one, some aspects the other. Some churches are sticklers for no Christmas hymns during Advent since it’s a season of waiting for the first coming; others don’t see any harm in belting out “Joy to the World” even in mid-December, especially since the birth of Christ happened two thousand years ago now.
I won’t try to settle that dispute. What is painfully clear, however, is that living between Christ’s first and second coming means that “peace on earth” happens even now in little installments and is yet to be fulfilled to the brim. If you have doubts about that first premise, look up the December 11 episode of 60 Minutes with its amazing feature about the guerrilla fighters in Colombia where drug lords and rampant murders have given way to healing in their nation. If you have doubts about the second premise, just watch pretty much every other news story any day of the year.
Have a blessed Advent, a Merry Christmas, and Maranatha (Come, Lord Jesus)!