Well, today is Advent Sunday. It is the beginning of the Church year, and so from me it’s ‘Happy New Year!’. This sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? When you hear people say ‘Oh, we’ll come in the ‘new year’ I bet you don’t immediately think of sometime after the beginning of Advent. But the beginning of the Christian Year has as much significance for Christians as does other ‘new years’ for other faith groups.
The beginning of the Christian new year sets us in a time frame, which governs our lives as Christians. It tells us ‘what day it is.’ The centre of this time frame is Easter Day. Everything leads up to and away from Easter. The first thing we do in our new year is to have a fast (Advent). We prepare for the coming of the Lord at Christmas, whose passion we will celebrate at Easter. Everything from now, up till 6th January deals with preparation for His coming, and a celebration of His coming. (The first of January, by the way, is the feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus. For some Europeans, it is the feast of St. Sylvester, an early pope.), If you are not a Christian it is Civil New year or if you are a Scot ‘Hogmanay).
So the shape of the calendar gives shape to the community. Anyone who had any claim to influence changes the calendar, so that Augustus Caesar started the calendar (year 0) from his accession. Pol Pot in Cambodia did the same as do the Muslims and Jews. The Nazis wanted to replace all Christian feasts by Nazi Party commemorations. The reality we ‘live in’ or allow to determine our lives (worship) is expressed in the calendar. That is why today everyone will get a copy of the new calendar, and which you will need to tell yourself ‘what day it is’.
There are a number of other ‘new’ things in the Church today to mark the start of the new year. The first of these is the Advent Wreath which is an aid that helps us to wait patiently. Despite the words of the hymn ‘The Lord will come and not be slow’, God often does appear slow to us! The waiting of Advent is a shorter form of all the waiting that we do in other times of life. It is a time of soberness and of reminding ourselves of the purpose of God for us, ‘not for evil, but for our welfare, to give us a future and a hope’. So on our wreath we have five candles. Four purple ones (the colour in the Church for a ‘fast’) and one pink one. The pink one has an interesting background. During each time of fasting, there is always a break. In lent, it comes on the fourth Sunday in Lent, and we call it ‘Refreshment’ or ‘Mothering’ Sunday. We give out Simnel cake. The same lightening of the mood comes in Advent on the third Sunday in Advent: hence the slightly lighter colour of the candle. Previously, the Epistle for this day was always ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing.’ The Latin word for ‘rejoice’ is ‘gaudate’. So the third Sunday in Advent is called ‘Gaudate Sunday’.
The central candle, being white, is called the ‘Christ candle’ and we will light it at the Christmas Midnight Mass.
The next ‘new thing’ that you will notice is the embroidery over the lectern. This is a picture of a winged lion. It is the symbol of St. Mark. (Just think of Venice). This symbol tells us that this year, we will be reading St. Mark’s Gospel as our Sunday Gospel reading. Two things come together here. First of all, the book of Ezekiel talks about there being four animals with wings. An ‘Angel’ or someone with human form, a Lion, an Ox and an Eagle. These four creatures have come to be associated with the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in turn. Each year, the readings from the Gospel for each Sunday are taken from either Matthew (year A), Mark (year B) or Luke (year C). This series of readings is known as the ‘Three year series’. John is not read as a Gospel in itself, but there are large sections of John’s Gospel read after Easter. John is such a rich gospel, that I think it should be studied, if we are not going to preach from it, or have it read in Church. So that’s the reason for the embroidery. There will be one for Matthew and Like too.
The other thing that you will notice as you come in is a black stylized ‘tree’ (a vertical stick with four horizontal ones). This is called a ‘Jesse Tree’. The Genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke place Jesus in his context as Messiah according to the flesh. Part of that genealogy is that Jesus comes from the house of David, whose father was Jesse. The prophet Isaiah says that even though the ‘tree’ of Jesse has been cut down (the exile) a ‘shoot will come from the stump of Jesse’. This is Jesus. So we call the story of Jesus a ‘Jesse Tree’. The readings that we have at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols close to Christmas also tell the story of Jesus’ coming from the prophesies that were used to make sense of who Jesus was. So with the Jesse Tree, we tell the story of the coming of Jesus through the characters in the bible, starting with Abraham and Sarah and ending on the fourth Sunday of Advent with Mary and Joseph. On Christmas Eve we will place on the top of the Jesse Tree the symbol for Jesus.
Another symbol that will be new in the Church during Advent is the Christmas tree. It stands there empty, reminding us of our own emptiness. Then, as Christmas approaches, we will ‘deck’ the tree with gladness. (Think of the hymn ‘Deck thyself O Soul with Gladness’). Apart from the decorations you will also have the opportunity to fill the tree with gifts, instead of receiving gifts from it! We have arranged with Med-Air to receive some cards from them, with information about their projects, and a Bulletin de Versement for you to use to give to Med Air. You can use these cards either as your own gift, or for someone else. If you intend to give to this cause, you can take the card, and a piece of ribbon, and tie it onto our tree as a symbol of your gift.
Finally, we will be setting up a Christmas manger scene in the Church, and , placing the figure of Jesus in it. The idea of a Manger Scene was invented by St. Francis of Assisi. The figures are taken from the Scriptures: the Shepherds from Luke’s Gospel, the Magi from St. Matthew. The presence of the Ox and the Donkey come from St. Francis’ use of Isaiah 1: 3 ‘The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know,my people do not understand.’ Creative, hey!
So there you have it: a collection of symbols that we make in the Church during Advent and Christmas to ‘locate ‘ us within the family of God, whose reality is shaped by the love of Christ. ‘Thou didst leave thy home and they kingly crown when thou camest to earth for me…O come to my heart lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for thee.’