This is the great message of the incarnation: that Jesus Christ was born into human history at just the right time for the salvation of the world. This is what we celebrate and proclaim during the joyous season of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany – The Christmas Cycle. This week we continue our series on the Liturgical Seasons. Our last newsletter talked about the green season of spiritual growth. Today it’s Christmas!
It is this season of the Christian year that begins the Lectionary Cycle; we begin at the beginning with the birth of our Lord and Savior. This cycle is filled with drama, history, and theological truth. We move through a wide range of themes: from hope to joy; darkness to light; yearning to fulfillment. It is about expectation and redemption; the “already” of Christ’s presence in the flesh, and the “not yet” of Christ’s coming at the end of time.
Advent is both a time of thanks for the gift of Christ to us in past time and a time of anticipation of his second coming. It is a season rich in tradition, imagery, and significance. There is much variety in the way we are able to incorporate this richness into our worship services; we look for fresh new ways to express the themes
One of the most widespread and popular customs for the season is the Advent Wreath. It consists of four candles and a larger Christ candle (white) at the center. In some traditions three of the candles are purple or dark blue and the fourth is rose, symbolizing the Third Sunday of Advent (“Gaudate” – rejoice). The actual color is not crucial and many contemporary settings use the same color for all four of the candles in the outer ring. A candle is lighted at the beginning of the service on the First Sunday of Advent, usually by a family or other layperson. Then one candle is lighted on each of the next four Sundays until all four are lit. Finally, on Christmas Eve or the first service on Christmas Day, the center white candle is lighted. Many people also choose to display a small Advent wreath at home and light the candles before evening meals.
Nearly every local church and home will display a Christmas tree of one sort or another. This tradition has deep roots with a variety of legends vying for the “true meaning” of the Christmas tree and its “actual” origins. I will not argue the various versions here. One type of tree to come out of these traditions is The Chrismon Tree; this is the version we use. It involves using a variety of symbols from the genealogy of Jesus and from his life, death, and resurrection. It stands as a remembrance of the whole story and significance of Christ whose birth we celebrate at Christmas.
The rest of the worship space is decorated in simple and somber ways as we prepare ourselves for the arrival of Jesus. We are reminded of Isaiah who spoke of the people who walked in darkness waiting for the Messiah to come. The atmosphere is subdued; purple, blue and gray in rough textures are appropriate for these four weeks. Then, suddenly, on Christmas Eve we hear the proclamation: “For to us a child is born, to us a Son is given” and we transition to finer fabrics in gold and white; a Light has come into the world and our worship space celebrates the joy and the glory of God.
There are either one or two Sundays after Christmas. One option is to celebrate January 1, or the Sunday nearest to it, with John Wesley’s Covenant Service. Another feast that may be celebrated during this period is Holy Family Sunday. When we reach The Epiphany we recall the images of the Magi, their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and their crowns. Epiphany completes the Twelve Days of Christmas we love to sing about and it is the festival that celebrates the Word of God made flesh, honored by gifts from all peoples and nations. This Sunday completes the Christmas Cycle and you will notice the dramatic change in worship space decoration.
This season is a favorite for most people and we do our best to fill it with exciting and meaningful images and great music. We try to honor tradition while also striving to stay fresh and avoid monotony. If we change something one year, it may come back the next season. If you have ideas, please share them with us.
May you rejoice today and every day,