When does the year start and finish? On the face of it this is a very easy question, however if the words ‘the Church year that is’ are added things become somewhat more complicated. Ask the question in school and the more alert children begin to realise that it could well be a trick question. Thus, some will venture that it is still January 1st to December 31st, others may well suggest that it is Christmas Day to Christmas Eve and some will try for Easter Day to Good Friday (strange how they always manage to lose the Saturday in between).
The one answer that I never get though, unless there is a church going child in the room, is Advent 1 through to the Saturday after the Feast of Christ the King. In itself this choice of dates does seem somewhat strange, after all Jesus was born and grew up under the old covenant and therefore it might be reasonable to have assumed that we might have followed the Jewish date for the New Year. This would have meant that the New Year would have been in late September or Early October each year, depending on the phases of the moon in exactly the same way as we have a 28 day period in March / April for the date of Easter (Passover).
Why then did we end up with Advent 1, which itself varies between late November and early December? As we know the early Church in England was keen to replace the pagan celebrations held around Saturnalia. Celebrations that were meant to try and encourage the return of the Sun, which, of course, in mid winter shone for its least amount each day. So successful were our ancient Christian brethren that they exported this new date for Christmas back out into the rest of the then known world.
A small problem here though is that over the centuries we have changed the length of the year and by default the exact timing of Christmas. December 25th was not fixed until sometime around the 1730’s (N.B. Opinions amongst scholars are divided over the exact time that the date was fixed).
If then the Feast of Christmas was fixed how did we create the season of Advent and indeed who decided it was going to last for at least 4 weeks and the days between the fourth Sunday and Christmas Day itself? That there should be a period of preparation before such a great feast seems logical after all Easter is preceded by Lent which lasts for 40 days, excluding the Sundays, and which takes its precedence from scripture. Advent has no such scriptural basis and indeed is not kept in the same way in the Eastern Church where the period leading up to Christmas is known as the Nativity Fast.
As best as I can ascertain from the numerous different theories that seem to have been put forward the idea of the early church was to have a period of at least 20 days excluding the Sundays and other major Feasts that might occur prior to Christmas. Why 20 days? Probably because Christmas is the 2nd most important feast and therefore in order to show its status and too distinguish it from the most important feast of Easter it was accredited half the fast period of that major feast; How true this is I do not know, but at least it is a plausible answer.
Certainly the idea of Advent stemmed from our ancient Roman Catholic roots and although the Eastern Church has a different name and duration, it nonetheless came from this same origin. Henry VIII kept the tradition when he split from Rome, as did the Lutheran Church and after its formation the Methodist Church, other Christian traditions have subsequently fallen in with the idea.
If there is an anomaly it is actually with the feast of Christ The King, which has only been fully recognised in the Church of England since the millennium, yes I really do mean only 11 years ago. In the Roman Catholic Church the feast has only been recognised since 1925 when Pope Pius XI instituted it. In the 1960’s the Second Vatican Council confirmed the day as a Feast day and in 1969 Pope Paul VI gave the feast a new title: "D. N. Iesu Christi universorum Regis" (Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe). He also gave it a new date: the last Sunday in the liturgical year, before a new year begins with the First Sunday in Advent, the earliest date for which is 27 November.
Through this choice of date "the eschatological importance of this Sunday is made clearer", He also assigned to it the highest rank, that of "Solemnity". Prior to this time there really was no celebration of the end of the Church year merely recognition within the appointed scriptural readings prior to Advent that Christ sat at God’s right hand in the Kingdom and that he ruled in His name.
A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.
Within the Church of England where for some 450 years the Book of Common Prayer held sway the Sunday before Advent 1 was always know as Stir up Sunday because the collect for the day began with those words and it became common practice after church and dinner that day to then make the ‘Plum Puddings’ for the following years Christmas feast. The Collect reads as follows : -
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The keeping of the days leading up to the feasts of Christ the King and of Advent also vary greatly, though Advent has a more clearly defined set of observances associated with it. Advent is also one of the few Christian festivals that can be observed in the home as well as at church. In its association with Christmas, Advent is a natural time to involve children in activities at home that directly connect with worship at church.
In many homes an Advent wreath (smaller but similar to the one in church) is often placed on the dining table and the candles lighted at meals, with Scripture readings preceding the lighting of the candles, especially on Sunday. A new candle is lighted each Sunday during the four weeks, and then the same candles are lighted each meal during the week. In this context, it provides the opportunity for family devotion and prayer together, and helps teach the Faith to children, especially if they are involved in reading the daily Scriptures. (This practice is very common in countries such as Spain and Italy and is gaining ground in the USA. It is one I would commend to us both at St. Augustine’s and indeed the wider church).
In congregational worship, the Advent wreath is the central teaching symbol of the season, the focal point for drawing the congregation into the beginning of the story of redemption that will unfold throughout the church year. For this reason, members of the congregation are often involved in lighting the Advent candles and reading the appropriate Scriptures each Sunday. As most of you know, I like to keep our younger members involved or those with a special anniversary to celebrate.
Whilst there is no particular set form of observance leading up to the feast of Christ the King, in the general Church of England calendar there is provision of a sort made within the Revised Common Lectionary which, takes the four Sundays before Advent and names them as The Kingdom Season. Thus they incorporate the Feasts of All Saints, All Souls and, of course, Remembrance Sunday and lead to the season’s culmination with the celebration of Christ as King. For this time the Church is meant to use red vestments rather than green when no other observance (and therefore colour) takes precedence.
How should we keep this time leading up to the end of the year? I would suggest by being more reflective in daily prayer and by remembering especially in those prayers, those whom we have loved and no longer see here on earth and that in the fullness of God’s time, not man’s, we might again be one with them as God is one, Father Son and Holy Ghost.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
God Bless you