The beginning of Advent, four Sundays before Christmas, marks the beginning of the church year, the liturgical year. Because it may not be entirely obvious as to why it is so, it may be helpful as we begin this year to say something about how observing the liturgical year is actually an important spiritual practice. For it is a spiritual practice, as all worship always is.
All spiritual practices have a single goal – to fit our lives to Christ’s life and, in doing so, to enjoy and understand the fullness of God’s promises. How does the liturgical year do this as it moves from season to season, from fast to celebration, to fast and celebration again? Above all, it is because the liturgical year enacts the story of Christ and thus by observing it we enact that story each year in some way in our own lives. In Advent we read the proclamations of the prophets about the coming Messiah; at Christmas, we celebrate the Incarnation of God’s Son, our Messiah, and at Epiphany we celebrate his manifestation to the whole world, for he is “the desire of the nations.” Then in Lent we begin the long walk to Good Friday, a walk where like Thomas, we say, “let us go, too, that we may die with him.” And yet, not long after getting there, we encounter the good news that Christ is risen and the assurance of our resurrection.
But it is still not over. Forty days after Easter, we celebrate Christ’s Ascension when he comes to reign over heaven and earth. What difference does that make? Well, the one who died and rose for us is the one who runs the show. And then ten days later, we celebrate Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit, a gift which is nothing less than the gift of putting in us everything that has happened to this point.
As we go through this story year after year in our time, if we are attuned to it and progress with it, the liturgical year starts to shape the years of our lives. Its story becomes our story and this year starts to give meaning to every other kind of year.
Another way to put it is to liken the progress of the year as a spiritual practice to the ripening of fruit. The fruits of the Spirit, like all other kinds of fruit, have to be planted, tended, and harvested, with a time for each step. Ripening takes time and everything has a time. That is the reason, for example, we don’t sing Christmas carols during Advent (at least in church). More than failing a measure of appropriateness, the reason we are careful this way is because each thing does have its time, and to grab for fulfillment without waiting for it to come on its own time can be a matter of grabbing a fruit that is hard and bitter. Or perhaps, it is overripe, being left over from years past.
The English poet John Donne once preached that it is always autumn in heaven. Why? Because the saints in heaven are fulfilled, and enjoying the harvest of life, when all the fruit is ripe. It is because things take time to ripen, including things of the spirit, that we pay attention to the passing of the liturgical seasons. By doing so, we do fit our lives to Christ’s, and we are able to enjoy fully and without bitterness or disappointment the fullness of God’s love for us.