Evangelicals have not usually been strong on the liturgical year, possibly because of Paul’s language about ‘observing special days and months and seasons and years’ in Gal 4.10. But, like many evangelical Anglicans, I have come to appreciate the sense of rhythm and shape that calendar gives to the year; after all, even in our national life, there is a shape to the year, shaped by the seasons of the agricultural year and now expressed in the pattern of school terms.
Yet I have realised that there is something odd about the way that Advent and Lent work in relation to Christmas and Easter. Broadly speaking, Advent offers a sense of expectation, technically looking towards Jesus ‘advent’ when he comes again, though in practice it functions as an anticipation of Christmas, understood as Jesus’ ‘first coming’. In a similar way, Lent functions as a season of reflection and repentance, in preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection at Easter. These seasonal emphases have an ancient origin; the early patterns of the catechumenate used Lent as a period of preparation for baptisms at Easter.
This pattern does some strange things both to the use of Scripture and our theologies of Christmas and Easter.
1. Because Advent is concerned with Jesus’ ‘second coming’, we read passages from Mark 13 and Matthew 24 which set out Jesus’ teaching about the destruction of the temple and Jesus’ parousia (briefly in Mark and more fully in Matthew), teaching which comes at the end of Jesus’ life and just before his trial and crucifixion. We then jump back to the birth narratives in Luke and Matthew for Christmas.
2. The pattern of Lent is based on Jesus’ 40-day temptation in the wilderness, so we read about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry—but then jump to the final days of his life and death. Although Luke tells us that after Jesus’ testing, the devil ‘left him until an opportune time’ (Luke 4.13), no explicit link is made between this and the events around Jesus’ passion; Gethsemane is a time of agonising, but not of temptation (despite the film The Passion of the Christ forging a visual link with a snake in the garden).
3. There is a clear sense of anticipation surrounding the events of Jesus’ birth, most notably in the ‘Benedictus’, Zechariah’s hymn of praise in Luke 1.68–79. But a stronger theme is that of judgement and the need for repentance. So Mary’s praise in the Magnificat includes celebration that God ‘has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts’ (Luke 1.51). Similarly, John the Baptist’s ministry of preparation for the coming of Jesus is marked by a powerful call to repentance and change (Luke 3.3–14)—indeed, all three synoptics sum up his ministry as ‘preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matt 3.2, Mark 1.4, Luke 3.3). And when Jesus’ appears, this too is his theme: ‘The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news’ (Mark 1.15).
4. Conversely, whilst there are themes of repentance in relation to Jesus’ passion, the stronger theme is of eschatological anticipation. It is while Jesus is teaching outside the city that the disciples ask about the timing and signs of the kingdom of God finally being restored (Matt 24.3 and parallels). The Passover supper has clear overtones of eschatological hope and anticipation, not least in Jesus’ comment that ‘I will not eat [the Passover] again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God’ (Luke 22.16).
What do we miss by this potential misalignment of theological themes?
Perhaps the most obvious relates to the way we think about Jesus’ return. Because we style it ‘the second coming’, we naturally pair it with Jesus’ first coming in his incarnation. But the NT does neither of these things. Jesus’ anticipated kingly presence on earth at the end of the age is never characterised as his second coming, but as his return, and is the logical counterpart to his resurrection and ascension (his departure, or ‘exodus’, Luke 9.31). And the language of coming, or presence, clearly an important element in the birth narratives (‘he has come to his people and set them free’ Luke 1.68). But it comes to a focus in Jesus’ ministry; this is when the kingdom of God has ‘drawn near’. ‘If I drive out demons by the finger/Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’ (Matt 12.28, Luke 11.20). Even in John, the idea of God ‘tabernacling with us’ (John 1.14) is expressed not simply in Jesus’ being human, but in his actions in cleansing the temple, and his ministry including his several festival visits to Jerusalem.
We also then struggle to understand the kingdom language that permeates the Passion narratives. Because we have dislocated the eschatological discourses, we fail to read the events of Easter through the language of Daniel 7, the handing of the kingdom to the ‘one with the appearance of a son of man’. Yet this was clearly Jesus’ understanding, declaring to the High Priest: ‘You will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven’ (Mark 14.62) as well as Stephen’s (Acts 7.56). Peter similarly links the events of Easter, the Ascension and Pentecost firmly with OT eschatology (Acts 2.17–21).
It is also interesting to note how Paul holds together the cross (and resurrection) and the breaking in of the age to come. At the end of Gal 6, Paul takes up the pen himself in order to sum up all he has been saying (Gal 6.11). The only thing Paul wants to boast about is the cross of Christ (Gal 6.14)—what matters is not what he has done, but what has been done for him. And the religious distinction signified by the question of circumcision has been dissolved by the age to come breaking into the present—it is the ‘new creation’ which puts an end to such distinctions (Gal 6.15). This new creation has changed everything.
From a pastoral/ministerial point of view, we have ended up with Christmas which has a sense of anticipation and excitement, as we think about the gift of God to us in Jesus at his birth and his generosity. By contrast, Easter represents a return to normal life, as it marks the end of slightly abnormal disciplines of Lent—a time when we focus on what sinners we are, and how much it cost Jesus to forgive us. Yet in many ways, Scripture has this in reverse. We should tremble at the idea of God coming to us in justice (Christmas)—yet we are lost in wonder when we realise we are freely forgiven and invited to experience the wonders of the new age (Easter). That is perhaps why believers are only once labelled ‘sinners’ in the whole New Testament (1 Tim 1.15).
I don’t suppose the calendar will be revised any time soon. (Celebrating Jesus’ birth in September, when he was probably born, focussing on his life and ministry, and having Advent running up to Easter would do it!) But if we were able to communicate the challenge of Christmas, and the anticipation and celebration of Easter, it might relate the dynamics of faith more effectively to the wider world.
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