The first Sunday in December marks the beginning of Advent, the season when we look forward to Jesus’s coming at Christmas. Growing up in the Christian tribe I did, all the Christian holidays seemed rather disconnected to me. We enjoyed Christmas, but when Christmas was over…well, it was over. A few months went by and then we had Easter, and even though I thought it was a wonderful little holiday (how could any holiday full of chocolate be anything but wonderful), it had nothing to do with Christmas as far as I knew. Now I find myself in a Christian tribe that respects and follows the Christian calendar. This has influenced me in a number of ways. For one, it has created in me a new, growing awareness of how the story of Jesus shapes how I view the passing of time. Within that context, it has also shown me how our Christian holidays are not disconnected blips on a twelve month calendar, but rather highlights in an ongoing, unfolding story. To put it differently, we cannot have Christmas without Easter because they are bookends to the same story.
During Advent we build excitement for the birth of our Savior, much like expecting parents during the third trimester. We know the day of arrival is coming. It is getting close. We can feel it in the air. After Advent comes Christmas, the day when we realize we can finally look our Savior in the face and see him smile. But the story does not end there, we know Lent is coming. Lent, the time when we are reminded that, as things stand now, from dust we came and to dust we will return. The joy of Christmas mingles with fear. The beautiful, snowy landscapes on the Christmas postcards are marred by the shadow of an impending cross. And then, with Good Friday, the cross stands tall. Death appears to be victorious. The laughter of Christmas turns into tears, and we all wonder, “What now?” But praise be to God for Easter! What began as a story like any other, a baby born that would one day die, ends by rewriting the rules of the book. Death has been swallowed in life. That is the story our Christian holidays tell. That is the story we willingly step into as we begin celebrating the season of Advent, and that should mean a great deal to our congregation.
We were born over 120 years ago and have gone through many rites of passage since then. We have changed locations and church buildings twice because of growth. We have fallen in love with ministers. We have seen children born, children grow, and children leave to begin new families of their own. We have experienced seasons of Advent and Christmas in our congregation, but over the last few decades it seems those joys have become tinged with other emotions, emotions like fear, sorrow, and discontent. What was once a picturesque church with a tall, white steeple atop a glowingly white roof, small green saplings lined out front, has become an aged building. We have entered into Lent. The paint on the steeple is flaking. The roofing shingles have faded to brown, and the trees are overgrown. And understandably, that scares us. It scares us because we know what Lent means. Lent means the cross is coming, an end to that with which we were familiar and a transition into a frightening unknown. As on Good Friday we are left asking questions like, “What happens now?”
But much like the story that unfolds from Advent to Easter, our story will not end at Good Friday. It will continue. It will continue on to Easter because we are the people who have made Jesus’s story our own by dying to ourselves in baptism. We are Christians, a people whose story ends with life swallowing death. We will get through Lent. We will mourn on Good Friday, but the final word of our story is a word of resurrection.
One cautionary word, however. The body Jesus had after resurrection was not the same body as before resurrection. In the years to come as God works on and in and among our church, we will be changed. Experiencing Easter does not mean going back to the way things were. Easter means something better, mind-blowingly, vocabulary-exhaustingly, imagination-surpassingly, grammar-breakingly better. God has a better imagination than we do. He is the Creator God, so there is nothing to fear in what God might do with us next. It is only very good when God creates.
The story of the Christian holidays is the story of Jesus. The story of those of us who follow Jesus is the story of Jesus, at least on good days. The story of our congregation is the story of Jesus: birth, death, and resurrection. It is a good story in which to find ourselves. Presently we find ourselves in the middle, in the letting go and maybe grieving that act of letting go. We are experiencing the unsettled nerves of transition, but just as Advent casts our vision toward Christmas, and Christmas toward Easter, let us set our eyes on resurrection. Let us be a people of vision, and fear not.
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever, amen.” –Ephesians 3:20-21