In a previous post I offered a general outline of the church calendar, as two cycles of seasons standing out from the ordinary passage of the year. Today I focus on the first of those, the Christmas cycle.
At present the ways the Christmas cycle is organised differs slightly between the Roman Catholic lectionary and the Revised Common Lectionary, on the one hand, and the Church of England’s lectionary on the other, by extending the post-Christmas celebration. This means there are two ways of constructing the Christmas cycle. The illustration is of the Church of England’s.
In both lectionaries, the season of preparation begins four Sundays before Christmas Day, with the First Sunday of Advent. Depending on how early in the week Christmas comes, Advent lasts between three and four weeks. When Christmas falls on a Monday it is three weeks and a day; when Christmas falls on a Sunday it is a full four weeks.
Over the course of time, Advent has become the beginning of the year for the Christian calendar, and is when we reboot the cycle of readings. This is because, as preparation for the birth of Jesus, it is reckoned as the start of telling his story.
Originally, Advent had rivals for the start of the story and the year, even if it had long begun the cycle of readings and other material proper to the seasons. In the mediaeval past, the year was often reckoned as beginning on 25th March, the commemoration of Gabriel’s message to the Blessed Virgin, the very beginning of the story of the eternal divine Son becoming the human Jesus. This still survives as the changing point of tax year, and the financial year for many businesses.
You may object that the tax year begins not on 25th March, but eleven days later. There’s an interesting historical explanation. When England switched in the middle of the 18th century from the old-style Julian calendar to the Gregorian one we use today, it dropped 11 days from the year. The government, however, had no intention of losing taxes or other payments, so kept the same “start” of the year for finances, and moved the date forward into April to keep the tax year the same length.
After this change 1st January became the unrivalled start of the secular year, and Advent then had no other rivals for when the gospel year began. In the process we lost the link between the beginning of the secular and Christian years.
Advent comes from a Latin word meaning “arrival”, traditionally translating the idea of the arrival or presence of Christ at the end of time. The prayers, readings and themes of Advent have always had that as one of its key foci. However, the church year inevitably directs us also to the arrival of the Christ-child at Christmas. Additionally, the Eucharist, as well as the attentive listening to Scripture (whether at or outside the Eucharist) also directs our attention to Christ’s presence with us here and now.
Advent balances all these meanings of Christ’s arrival or presence, so that ideally they reinforce each other. He comes into the human world at Christmas, he comes to bring the world into God’s eternity at the end of all things, and he comes to us sacramentally and spiritually in the present. To prepare well for one should also be to prepare well for the others.
The readings at Advent try to walk this balancing act. The first Sunday focuses on the theme of judgement and the final presence of Christ. The second and third Sundays on the ministry of John the Baptist, the one called to help people prepare for Christ. The fourth Sunday focuses on Mary (and in Year A, with Matthew’s Gospel, on Joseph) and more specifically draws us towards our final preparations for the birth of the Saviour.
Something of the character of Lent has rubbed off on Advent: typically churches stop singing the “Gloria in Excelsis / Glory to God in the highest” during Advent. But, at least in the West, it remains more joyful as a season of expectation than Lent does, and the Gospel reading is still preceded by singing an “Alleluia! 1 In the Eastern Orthodox Churches it is more obviously a fasting season.2
Christmas traditionally has twelve days, taking us from the Feast of the Nativity to the Feast of the Epiphany, in the Western Church primarily a celebration of the visit of the Magi, the wise men. The older pattern, still followed by the Roman Catholic and Revised Common Lectionaries, ends Christmas there.
A newer pattern, adopted by the Church of England, now tries to extend Epiphany from a feast day to a season, bringing it to an end with the Presentation of Christ. This story, narrated in Luke’s Gospel as the fortieth day after Jesus’ birth, marks the end of the birth stories in his gospel, showing Mary and Joseph as faithful Torah-observant Jews, acknowledging the gift of a first-born son as the law prescribed.
In fact, nearly all the readings remain the same, despite this attempt to create a season, and those readings do generally reflect themes of how Jesus was revealed, or revealed himself to others in the early stages, continuing something of the thought of Epiphany. The major differences between the Anglican lectionary and those it is based on come on the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany (the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time), Year B.
I confess to being entirely unconvinced this Common Worship experiment is a good one. By the time we reach Epiphany, Christmas simply feels over. This last year I happened to be providing Sunday mass cover in two rural churches, and with no regard to the intention of the Common Worship Lectionary, they were carefully putting the Christmas crib back into boxes for the following year. It simply feels (to most people other than romantic liturgists) like life is resuming post holiday normality – Ordinary Time – after 6th January
- There is a tradition of singing a (usually scriptural) sentence, preceded and followed by singing “Alleluia”, as an acclamation to greet the gospel. It is normal practice in the Roman Catholic Church, and becoming more widespread in the Anglican Church, but rarely found elsewhere.
- It’s also possible, that, like Lent, Advent has its origins in a time of preparation for baptism, at Epiphany, when the Baptism of Jesus is also commemorated.