My young sons – who are 10,8 7, and 4 are transfixed, like many children of their ages, by the idea that it is nearly Christmas. In fact, if truth be told, they have been focused on Christmas since the last of them had their birthdays in August. When – until today – I have been telling them that Christmas is was not until next year that has seemed a very long time for them to have to wait. But of course it has been true.
Our Christian year does not begin on the first of January like the secular year around us, our year begins this weekend on the first Sunday of Advent. And then – as it has been for generation after generation of members of the Church before us – our year guides us through the various seasons that help us to reflect on the life of Christ, and the purposes of God. Just as the four seasons of secular time mark out – year after year – the changes in our landscape, so the Christian year through its seasons, help us to focus on the great themes of our tradition.
In Advent, at the start of the year, we once again spend time preparing ourselves for the coming of God, incarnate in the baby Jesus, and we remind ourselves too that one day Jesus will come again to bring all things to fruition at the end of time. Then we will celebrate the great feast of the incarnation on Christmas Eve and then continuing through Epiphany on the Sundays that follow as we celebrate God amongst us. As this new year passes on we will live through Lent, beginning on Ash Wednesday as we strip away all that prevents us from examining ourselves as the people that we really are,in order to be ready to walk with Jesus through the final steps of his life, beginning on Palm Sunday and continuing with the great days of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Holy Saturday, until we are able joyfully once again to celebrate with the angels and Saints his resurrection on Easter Day.
Then through the great days of Easter we will be caught up with the disciples in the wonderment of that resurrection, leading to the great feast of his ascension (his returning to heaven), and then onwards as we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – that powerful reminder that we have not been left alone – as the disciples are driven out by the Holy Spirit, no longer hidden in an upper room, but instead becoming the first great missionaries of the good news that Jesus is alive. And between each of these markers in our Christian year we will, as we have done so many times before, remember on particular days the lives of Apostles and Saints and Martyrs.
The readings from scripture that we gather around Sunday by Sunday and day by day in our yearly cycle will help us as we journey through the life of Jesus and of the Early Church. To know where we are up to in the cycle of our year, the colours of the altar, and of the vestments worn by Deacon Wendy and I will be changed to make clear to us the season in which we are situated. The rituals and words of our liturgy will call us to be mindful and to be caught up in each moment of our remembering; and then as we come to this time next year, we will start the whole cycle all over again. As it was last year, as it has been this year, so it will be next year, and on and on into the future.
I say all of this to you because I think that it is worth – on this first weekend of the Christian year – stopping and pondering for ourselves all that you have learnt together in the last year, and to look forward expectantly to all that is to come in the new year which is beginning today. Because, through the seasons of our Christian year we are caught up in the unending re-telling and living out of the good news of Jesus, as we continue to be formed into his likeness – as we continue to grow together as his body. Rectors come and go, the particular ways that we do certain things change over time as well, but the Christian year, as a framework for living out our life in Christ is repeated again and again, time after time from our birth to our death.
If we missed one substantial part of the story we would be in danger of misunderstanding the good news as a whole. Imagine if we lived continually in the moment of Jesus’ death, but had not heard or celebrated the good news of his resurrection? Or if we knew about the resurrection but did not also know the truth of the Christmas story, that this man who has died and is risen, is also God himself? Or if we knew about Jesus’ ascension but had no idea that we had not been left alone, and that the Holy Spirit was here with us. Through the unending cycle of our Christian year, week by week, and year by year, we live out the pattern of the Gospel, being nurtured again and again here at St Peter’s by the feasts and festivals which keep us focused on the good news which they contain. This is our calling as the Church, to live faithfully through the seasons of our year, and to commend them to those who live around us.
When I was appointed to be your parish priest I very deliberately asked the Bishop whether he would be willing to commission me on the Feast of Christ the King specifically so that I would be able to start the new Christian year with you, beginning today, so that we could journey through the whole year, from the beginning, to the end. I was commissioned on the Sunday evening of the last Sunday of the Christian year, so that we could start the new year together.
Many of us have been through this cycle many times before. And we may experience a sense of déjà vu as we begin the new Christian year again today at the beginning of Advent, and so the task for us each year is to somehow make this old and familiar experience new for ourselves, and attractive for others. But for others of us, we may never have been really conscious of the Christian seasons as they have passed us by. And we have the opportunity in the year ahead (which begins today) to take special notice each week of the colours and words of our liturgy, and what they are pointing to for us to be focused upon. So today we begin the new year at the beginning of the season of Advent.
Advent is not just a period of time set aside for us to prepare for Christmas. For Christians through the ages, the season of Advent has been a space not only to remember and reflect upon what it was like to live in this world before Jesus had come here (expectantly hoping for a rumour of the coming of a saviour); it has also been a time which has been set aside to reflect upon the second coming of Christ, when Jesus will return again in great glory, in a way that we simply will not understand until it happens. It is this second theme which will probably be uppermost in our minds having just heard Jesus’ teaching as it was remembered by the writers of the Gospel of Luke.
Today, as we celebrate the beginning of the new Christian year with brothers and sisters around the world, as we embark again on this journey of remembering which will take us through the seasons of the Christian year – the great stories and events in the life of Jesus in the twelve months ahead of us – it is probably a reasonable moment to ask where we are on our own Christian journeys. The secular new year (the 1st of January) is, after all, a time that we often use to take stock of our lives, and to set some resolutions for the future. It might be sensible to suggest that the beginning of the Christian year, on this first weekend in Advent, is a good time for us to do that taking stock as well.
As we read the Gospels week by week, it is clear that Jesus doesn’t start by giving his disciples a manual which explains fully how everything needs to be done ahead of time, or how it will all work itself out. Instead, through a process rather like drip-feeding, Jesus draws the disciples into an ever increasing commitment and understanding about what the Kingdom of God is all about. Whilst some of those first disciples had extraordinary moments of initial commitment to Jesus, that decision to follow him (or rather the decision of Jesus to invite them) wasn’t a one moment event, but an ongoing journey of being drawn more deeply into an understanding of Jesus’ life and purpose. As it was for them, so it is for us.
Sometimes, as I read the Gospels, I wonder whether those first disciples would have been so eager to follow Jesus at the beginning, if they had known then, what they came to understand later. Take Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel passage which we have heard today, for example. We catch a glimpse of Jesus teaching his disciples that things are going to change for them. There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth the roaring of the seas and the waves will bring confusion and distress, says Jesus. Imagine how the disciples feel as they hear Jesus mapping out what is to come. We can almost hear them saying to him, “this is not what I signed up for.” And in many ways that kind of response may be true for us as well.
We give thanks today at this Eucharist for the ordination of our sister Wendy as a Deacon in God’s Church. Unlike deacons that we have known here in the parish before Deacon Wendy will not be leaving us shortly to go to another parish, she is a gift from God and from the Church for us. Because Deacon Wendy did not train in a theological college a long way away from us, but studied whilst being here in the parish, we have seen her grow and develop. Of course her ordination on Friday afternoon was not the end of that growing but the start of the next phase of her journey here as a Deacon who will help us to connect with the people who live beyond us. Wendy has been ordained to be a bridge between these congregations and the communities around us, and we see that in the role that she now takes on in our liturgy: proclaiming the Gospel, calling us to confession and intercession, and serving by setting the altar. Through the liturgy we see her dual roles of leading us out into the local community, and serving the Church here within our congregations. But Deacon Wendy has not been called to do this on her own. She acts as a mirror, in her ministry we see our own calling to do what she is doing too.
At the start of this new year, as we celebrate with Wendy, we should reflect on our own growth over the last year, and look forward to all that is in store for us in the year ahead. This weekend is the beginning of the new Christian year. The worst possible thing that we could do, is to simply presume that this year will be the same as the last year. That was never true for the disciples as they journeyed with Jesus, and it should not be true for us as we journey with him now. Today we begin a new Christian year. Let’s be expectant this Advent about what God has in store for us. Happy new year!