Pastors and many who work in churches for a living run on different calendar than most other people. We begin a new year on the Sunday that follows Thanksgiving most years. We call it the "First Sunday of Advent" and it begins a new church year. The years are consecutively labeled with A, B, and C so that each year we have the next part of the cycle. This year that will begin next Sunday, November 27, is Year B. The lectionary lessons that are assigned for Year B will begin on this Sunday and continue until next Thanksgiving, 2012. There are four Sundays in Advent that lead up to Christmas Eve and Day. Christmas Day comes on a Sunday this year so the Christmas celebration itself will be even bigger than when it comes on a weekday.
Advent is the New Years celebration of the Church. We begin a new year and we have four weeks to celebrate it. It leads up the New Years celebration that the entire world has on January 1 but it is a major event of the Church because it is a time of preparation for the Christ event that we celebrate yearly. In the same way, that all of us prepare our homes for that holiday company that may visit us on Christmas Day, we prepare our churches and our hearts for the special Christmas celebration.
In our church, we have a special luncheon on the First Sunday of Advent and we share in the decoration of the church building, working together to make it all happen. There are banner to be hung, three trees to be erected and decorated, a life size Nativity scene that goes outdoors to be secured and fastened so that the wind will not take it away, two smaller Nativity scenes to be strategically placed, and a multitude of other decorations that are put here and there. A huge 14 foot tall tree is placed in the front of our sanctuary. It is not a Christmas tree but it is a Chrismon tree. Chrismons are decorations that symbolize something from the Christian faith. Many of them symbolize attributes of Jesus as Messiah, Redeemer, and other names given to him by the Early Church. The huge tree is lit during our services in Advent and Christmas.
Advent marks a new beginning and an end to the previous Christian Year. Last Sunday was Christ the King Sunday and Thanksgiving Sunday, a time when the culture and faith are in competition. Most churches observe Thanksgiving Sunday, as we did, but some do celebrate Christ the King Sunday, a day to proclaim Jesus Christ as King and Lord of all the world. I have preached the Christ the King texts in the past but found that most congregations prefer thinking about giving thanks for their blessings rather than trying to understand the cosmic nature of the Christ.
The First Sunday of Advent always features scripture texts that are rather apocalyptic in nature. This year Mark 13 which is called the "little apocalypse" is being read. Jesus' words to his disciples regarding all kinds of gloomy things that will occur when the Son of Man comes in his glory are read ending with his warning, "Keep Awake." That is the theme of Advent--watching and waiting, being prepared, keeping your eyes opened, looking for the Messiah who is to come. So, each week we light candles, read scriptures, say prayers emphasizing the theme, our preparation to welcome the Messiah into our lives.
Christmas Eve is prime time in the Church. Many people attend church services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day who rarely if ever go to church (except on Easter Sunday, of course). Christmas seems to bring them back to the church for sentimental reasons or because they were taught that it is expected of them. Some attend church with their relatives who will be going to church and others may attend simply because they think the season is not complete without it. We are thankful for any time that people attend church and if Christmas brings people to God's House then let the season be blessed.
If you do not have a house of worship this year, you may find your life a bit richer by worshiping during Advent and Christmas in the church of your choice. We in the United Church of Christ welcome all who would come into our church. Whoever you are and wherever you are on life's journey, you have a home in the United Church of Christ. There may not be one near you if you live in the South, but God's love can be revealed to you as you seek out the place where you will feel comfortable in worship. May the God of Peace bless you with all the gifts of this Holy Season found in the face of the little child of Bethlehem.