Have You Ever Wondered Why the Church Celebrates the New Year Well Before Christmas?
It’s terribly odd to declare the beginning of the new year four Sundays before Christmas—that is, on Advent 1. Most folks ring in the new year at midnight on January 1 with toasts and resolutions. For a considerable number of folks, the end of August signals the start of a new school year and the end of summer vacations. But between these two new years, the church invites us to celebrate another new year, beginning four Sundays before Christmas. But why?
For one reason, it’s because we—as the church—keep time. Morning and evening of each day has been marked by prayer since the church’s beginning. Our weeks begin on Sunday—the “first day of the week”—with tolling bells and worship, proclaiming that Christ burst forth from the grave and defeated death on “the first day of the week.” And our years hinge upon two great seasons: the seven weeks of Easter and the twelve days of Christmas. Each day, each week, and each year, we step in time to the rhythms of the church’s prayers, worship, and rest. But why?
Because time in the church is story time. Or, we might say, time is storied. In Advent, we tell the stories of God’s people—Israel—longing for the coming of the Messiah, who will heal all that sin has broken, and we long ourselves for this same Messiah to return. In Christmas, we celebrate the birth of our King—no wonder we need 12 days of Christmas! In Epiphany, we recall the life and teaching of Jesus that ushered in God’s kingdom on earth. In Lent we walk with Jesus to the cross, mindfully and repenting, because we know he goes to the cross for us. In Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, story time and our time sync up as we walk with Christ from betrayal through resurrection. In Easter, we celebrate for seven weeks because Christ has defeated death. And in Pentecost we hear of how the power of the resurrection trickled out into the world through the church, turning everything upside down.
In the church, time is storied. And as we step in time to the rhythms of the church’s prayers, worship, and rest, we become people of the that story—we become God’s people, the church. And today and in the weeks to come, we begin to tell that story again. Happy New Year!