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 loose 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 least 4 weeks and the days between the fourth Sunday and Christmas Day itself? That there should be a period of preparation before such as 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 Feast Days 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 to 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 the Second Vatican Council, held in the early 1960’s. Prior to this time there really was no celebration of the end of the Church year merely a recognition within the scriptural readings at services that Christ sat at God’s right hand in the Kingdom and that he ruled in His name.
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. (Known to many choir boys and girls as Christmas Pudding Sunday!)
Barking & Dagenham Adult College Choir
Saturday 15th December (It sounds a long way away but it isn’t really)
The Choir will sing their Christmas Concert in Church that evening and light refreshments will be available.
More details nearer the time but something for the diary. Still awaiting details. Watch the pew sheets.