The Church Year as Evangelistic Resource; Active and Passive Advent Piety; and Weaving Together Christmastide and New Year's Day

Q

So often, church year seasons drive our worship planning process. But terms like “Advent” and “Epiphany” don’t communicate well. They end up being barriers to our audience—especially our audience of the unchurched. What can we do about that?

A

The church year should be a resource for evangelism, not a barrier to it. After all, the church year is designed to focus our attention on Jesus in an intentional, balanced way. It’s all about the “evangel” of “evangelism”—the good news.

Advent is about a deep and profound longing for God’s goodness and peace in the middle of a world in turmoil. It is about living with hope in Christ in spite of pain and tragedy.

Epiphany is about how God is not obscure and distant, but rather is a God who is made known. And it is about how this message isn’t just given to one people or nation, but to all nations.

Thus, these moments in the church year touch on some of the most profound reasons why some people avoid church as well as some of the deepest yearnings of the human heart that can only be fulfilled in Christ.

Even better, these events—and all the historic Bible readings, hymns, songs, and prayers associated with them—address these topics in terms of what God has done in Jesus to fulfill our deepest hopes, rather than in terms of what we need to do in pursuit of self-fulfillment. They come with a built-in inoculation against moralism.

I am not saying that everyone needs to use the terms “Advent” and “Epiphany” explicitly. What matters is that the dimensions of the gospel to which Advent and Epiphany point should be routinely explored in your congregation. At the same time, I see almost no reason why you couldn’t use these terms in some form, provided that you also offer a guide to their meaning.

Incidentally, I like how your question challenges the church to be more explicit about the ways that its practices respond to fundamental human needs, fears, and hopes. I wonder if your church bulletin, bulletin board, newsletter, or Facebook page could routinely point to upcoming services (from Epiphany to Ascension and beyond), and list a common fear or hope of unchurched people to which the season or celebration directly responds. That habit would explicitly frame each moment in the unfolding church year as being ripe with possibilities for evangelism and growth in Christ.

Q

I have been struggling to discern why people in my congregation are so eager to turn Advent into an extended Christmas season. Part of it is their love for Christmas carols. But I wonder if part of it is that their idea of Advent is so passive. They really don’t like waiting. What do you think?

A

I suspect you are on to something. Waiting is fundamental to the Christian life, but we are impatient people. I can see the value of a series of sermons and services on the theme of waiting.

The church year is designed to focus our attention on Jesus in an intentional, balanced way. It's all about the "evangel" of "evangelism"—the good news.

But I worry a bit about overemphasizing the passive side of Advent. Near the end of his wonderful book on Isaiah 60, When the Kings Come Marching In, Richard Mouw makes this observation: “We are called to await the coming transformation. But should we wait actively, not passively. We must seek the City which is to come.” Mouw envisions Isaiah 60—a key Advent Scripture text—as the call to embrace anti-racism campaigns and peacemaking initiatives, all led by the sturdy conviction that it is God’s agency that will bring about peace and justice.

Mouw takes care to add this note: “of course there is a passive dimension to our search for the Celestial City. . . . It is only by passively receiving the light of Jesus that we can be active reflectors of that light.” This is why is it so important to sing Advent songs about what God is doing to overcome fear, injustice, violence, sin, and shame—and to receive all of this as God’s unmerited grace.

Mouw helps us see that Advent is a season for both “active” and “passive” piety. Or, perhaps slightly better, it is a season for both “receiving” and “responding,” a season for both open arms and active hands.

Try dividing your list of possible Advent songs into two categories: songs that focus on our receiving of what God is doing in Christ, and songs that dedicate ourselves to living more deeply into the shape of God’s coming kingdom. And think about ways to weave together the “active” and “passive” in prayers, sermons, meditations, and other aspects of your Advent worship.

Q

New Year’s Day seems important for our church to observe. But that always ends up displacing any sense that Christmas is a season—something to linger over. So there is too much to cover on that single Sunday, which falls on Dec. 28 this year. Do you have any ideas for how to handle this?

A

This is a bit like trying to have Palm Sunday cover both Jesus’ triumphal entry and his passion. It can feel as if there is too much going on.

Churches approach this in such different ways. Some focus a morning service on Palm Sunday and an evening service on the passion of Christ. Some have the sermon focus on one theme, and weave the other theme into the congregational prayer. Others, unfortunately, simply ignore one of these themes.

There may be, however, some very pastorally and theologically significant ways of thinking about the convergence of Christmastide and New Year’s Day, especially related to how each marks time.

New Year’s Day is a cultural observance built around a certain kind of technology for marking time. To use an old Greek word, New Year’s Day marks chronos time—clock time. For years, Christians have sanctified New Year’s Day by contemplating God’s call to “number our days” (Ps. 90:12). We remember our finitude and dependence on God as we remember how time marches on. It is good to acknowledge chronos time, the pervasive way it structures our lives, and the way God inhabits and redeems it.

But chronos time is not all there is. Christmas marks a different kind of time: kairos time. Kairos refers to a certain quality of time—a pregnant moment, a moment of breathtaking significance, a moment when lives are changed. Jesus’ birth was such a moment. It happened “in the fullness of time” (Gal. 5:6). In the words of Carl Daw’s memorable hymn, it happened “When God’s Time Had Ripened.”

By the Spirit’s power, we are welcomed to embrace many kairos moments, opportune moments to live deeply into the love of God, moments to “make the best use of [kairos] time” (Eph. 5:16).

To truly appreciate kairos time, we need to sense its contrast with chronos. That transforms the juxtaposition of Christmas and New Year’s Day from a problem into an opportunity. Indeed, contemplating the meaning of the Christmas gospel on New Year’s Day is like spiritual salve for anyone who experiences time as meaningless or depressing.

One final note: don’t miss the delightful Christmas/New Year’s juxtaposition found in Jaroslav Vajda’s wonderful carol “Greet Now the Swiftly Changing Year” (LUYH 400). Filled with references to Christmas, the carol celebrates kairos time with a memorable testimony about how Christ’s abundant love “far exceeds the volume of a whole year’s needs.” Al Fedak’s wonderful carol-like tune helps the text dance with joy. That’s a perfect hymn for the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s Day every single year.

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin College.