Ask A Theologian – Advent & Christmas

Written By Boston Avenue

Ask A Theologian

Advice from Boston Avenue's Theologian In Residence

What is the history of the Christian liturgical calendar and what is the theological significance of Advent?

Response:

In broad strokes: calendars give structure to the passage of time by assigning meaning to particular events and periods. “In the year King Uzziah died…” “9/11/2001.” “When the moon was full…” “When the star appeared…” “Remember the Sabbath.” “Spring training.” “The year we brought Eliana home.” “The second Sunday of Christmas.” “The Tuesday after the first Monday in November.” “Superbowl Sunday.” Each of these events holds a meaningful place on someone’s calendar. A string, or loop, of such events creates a course on which a period of time runs.

Calendars may be linear or cyclical. Does time progress, more or less forward? Or is time more of a cycle, a circle—vicious or virtuous—or maybe a spiral? [Think of the phrase: history does not repeat but it rhymes.] Christianity’s calendars, for both Eastern and Western churches, move adherents through an annual repeating cycle.

These liturgical calendars developed starting in the 4th century when Christianity became the religion of the dissolving Roman empire. As it is with the Jewish calendar of the year during which events such as receiving the commandments and Passover are re-membered, so it was with Christianity, beginning with Easter (truly the most important day on Christianity’s calendar). Passover and the crucifixion (Good Friday – Easter) could be dated to a specific set of days. Christmas, on the other hand, was assigned to December to wrest Christians from participating in pagan practices (and, after two millennia, are we there yet?)! Christian calendars also divide time between feasts and fasts, with fasts and seasons of repentance preceding the feasts.

That last comment brings me to Advent. The season of Advent, a word meaning coming or arrival, is almost as old as Christmas. It was conceived as a season of fasting prior to the Christmas feast, akin to a mini-Lent. One prepares to receive by emptying. One with full hands, heart, and mind has no capacity to receive. One who is never hungry can never know the full joy of a feast and being full. Advent invites us into a period of preparation to receive the newborn Jesus, and all he will become. Again, every year. Emptying, letting go, sitting in darkness, waiting and watching, feeling hunger for food and for a peace-built world are appropriate spiritual practices.

Within Methodism, our practice of Advent waned and then waxed. John Wesley, an Anglican priest, lived within the church’s rich liturgical calendar. In the transition of Methodism to America, Methodism was further Protestantized and more “Catholic” ways of worship were pared away. That simplified recipe, without much of an Advent or Lent, held, more or less, until the liturgical renewal of the late 20th century, a result of the ecumenical movement and the diminished power of antipathy toward things “Catholic.” Since then, Advent observances have grown (and monetized by the culture; have you seen Advent calendars full of scotch or chocolate? Good grief.)

Throughout my time serving and worshipping in United Methodist churches, I’ve seen stronger and weaker efforts to allow Advent to be its own season, with its own emphases and songs, rather than simply a ramp-up to Christmas. “Why are you making us sing these strange hymns, Pastor, when we could be singing Christmas carols we all know?” In our culture, since the turn of the 19th into the 20th centuries, the buying calendar for the consumer goods economy became intimately linked with Christmas. That buying calendar has no use for a season of emptying, reflecting, waiting, and feeling hunger for a better world. But the season of Advent, within the Christian liturgical calendar, makes time and space for an emptiness that longs to be filled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Theologian in Residence

Gary Peluso-Verdend is the President Emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, OK, an ecumenical seminary affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Since 1993, he served at Phillips as a program director, the dean, development executive, president, and founding director of the Center for Religion in Public Life. For five years (2000-2005), he was the director of church relations at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL. Gary retired from Phillips in February 2023.

Gary is a retired ordained elder in The United Methodist Church (Northern Illinois Conference). He earned his PhD at the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1991. He attends Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in Tulsa where he teaches adult church school classes frequently.

Gary serves on the board of the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice and on working groups for the Braver Angels Alliance in OK and Compassionate Tulsa.

He and his wife live with their daughter in Tulsa, in the fourth (and last) house-in-need-of-updating they have owned. Gary’s three grown children and their families live in the Chicago area.

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