Liturgical Layers – Advent

From the bishop

We will soon see the beginning of the season of Advent. Advent opens the new Church Year, being the first of the liturgical seasons. The progression of the seasons–Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter (concluding with the Day of Pentecost)–is known as Sacred Time because this is the telling of how our redemption through Jesus Christ was accomplished. By contrast, for the past several months we have been in Ordinary Time, not as in “routine” but from the word “ordinal,” meaning ordered sequentially, numbered as the Sundays after Pentecost (not “of” Pentecost). Thus, these Sundays are not, properly speaking, a Church season in the way that, say, Advent, Lent and Easter are seasons. This may seem to be a rather picky point but I feel that it is quite important to keep the distinction between Sacred Time and Ordinary Time for two reasons. First, this brings greater emphasis to the distinctive purpose of each one of the proper liturgical seasons. Also, keeping this perspective brings better focus upon the single, cohesive story that is told in the Scripture readings from Advent 1 through the Day of Pentecost.

Advent is a particularly tough case in this regard. To begin with, the Church has to work hard to observe Advent with integrity. We must not sell-out to the instant gratification of the secular culture’s holiday season, which is at cross-purposes with Advent. It is telling that we have to keep reminding ourselves that Advent is not yet “Christmas time.” In our culture’s most exuberant, hustle-bustle time of year, Advent is a quiet, introverted time calling for waiting and reflection. In what is easily the most sentimentalized time of year, Advent is not at all sentimental. In fact, it has quite a sharp edge to it. And when culture and custom have lights strung everywhere, inside and out, Advent’s dark liturgical color shows that this Church season accepts and mirrors this time of year when the days are shortest, knowing that its darkness should be embraced and entered rather than contradicted.

In addition to all of that, Advent presents other challenges to our Christian life and worship. To me, this is the most complex of all the Church seasons because it has several layers packed into a relatively short time frame. The four weeks of Advent present themes of future, present and past (in that order) and each one must be addressed: (1) the Second Coming of Christ, always the first theme of  Advent; (2) our own waiting and preparation for Christ in our lives and our acceptance of Him (the second and third Sundays of Advent, when we encounter John the Baptist); and (3) the account of the annunciation of Jesus’ birth to Mary and Joseph, on the fourth Sunday. As I said, all of this is a lot to handle. It takes real discipline for us to develop and keep focus on the very different things that the Church is doing at this time of year. That disciplined focus is exactly what the liturgy is intended to help you find–through the Scriptures, the words to the hymns, in ritual (such as the Advent wreath) and in a particular inwardness and restraint.

As your bishop, my prayer is that you will know this wondrous time for everything that it is. You will find that Advent is so much more than “getting ready for Christmas.” We are preparing to meet Christ Himself–the One who will come again in all of His glory, who comes to us daily in our lives of discipleship, and who is the Word made flesh who dwelt among us.


With blessings,


Bishop Shannon

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