There is something deeply comforting about the fixedness of the liturgical calendar. The weather doesn’t seem to care much for the official start dates of fall, winter or spring. Work calendars and the daily tasks ebb and flow. I, for one, am never really sure what the coming week will bring in terms of meetings, tasks, child care needs, urgent house repairs or sudden deadlines.
But we know that after a long period of ordinary time, the four Sundays before Christmas will bring about something new. The sanctuaries of our churches are transformed—through the work of frequently unseen volunteers—and are bathed in rich blue (or purple) as we look forward and prepare ourselves to welcome again our incarnated Lord.
The reliability of a liturgical calendar isn’t unique to Christians, however. Christian readers of the Bible frequently skip over the instructions about how Israelites were to construct their years in such a way that a pattern of worship, thanksgiving and pilgrimage was built into the calendar. Three times a year at Pesach/Passover, Shavuot/Pentecost and Sukkot/Tabernacles, Israelites were to make a pilgrimage to God’s sanctuary. Once there, they were to present their offerings and then celebrate a massive feast with family, friends, employees, foreigners and the poor (Deuteronomy 16:14-16). I like to think of these festivals as thrice-yearly mega-Thanksgivings, where familial and community bonds are strengthened and inequalities of wealth, nationality and family status are purposefully undermined.
Pilgrims would have sung this week’s psalm as they went up to Jerusalem for these festivals. The psalmist speaks of a city “bound together” (122:3) into which all the tribes go together (122:4). Once there, the psalmist prays for the peace of Jerusalem, on account of all her family and friends (122:8) who have gathered together within its walls to celebrate.
I believe that God wants us to be looking forward to and straining toward a time when people all over the world will discard the madness of war and violence and instead turn to God’s ways of reconciliation, justice, inclusion and embrace.
The Isaiah passage for this week considers the yearly festivals and looks forward to a time when there will be cause for even more celebration. A day will come when Mount Zion will be a pilgrimage site for all people (which is easy to imagine if you’ve ever lived in Jerusalem during an extremely overcrowded Holy Week) and not just those who follow the commandments of God through Moses. However, instead of simply sharing a ritual meal and then returning home, people will seek to learn God’s ways and try to walk in God’s path (2:3). As all the nations learn of God’s passion for justice, mercy, love, grace and peace, violence and war will become obsolete. Weapons will be converted into implements that feed, rather than injure, all those made in God’s image (2:4). This is one of my favorite images in all of Scripture because of the powerful alternative it is to so much violence and war in our world today.
People during Jesus’ time were no strangers to war and violence. The Roman Empire had descended upon the Holy Land, initially to settle an argument over who should be ruler. Gradually that evil empire came to exercise direct control in some places and allowed Edomite Herodians to control the rest. Roman authority was swift and brutal, just as Herodian authority was capricious and murderous. Residents of Judea, Perea and Galilee anxiously anticipated the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that eventually the nations that were exploiting and oppressing God’s people would repent, follow the just and peaceful ways of God, and turn their creativity and industriousness from violently suppressing people to caring for their needs.
Jesus knew the hope and longings of his people for the Messianic age in which they would be free from cruelty and oppression. As he neared the end of his earthly life, the questions about when he would inaugurate the peaceful reign of God must have become incessant. As the pilgrimage festival of Passover approached, surely many people thought: Jesus is the Messiah, Jerusalem is the Holy City, Passover is the celebration of deliverance—God is about to upend history once again and deliver God’s people as in times of old.
But Jesus poured cold water on that mounting confidence and certainty that the Day of the Lord was at hand. He said he didn’t even know when the day of the Lord would arrive (Matthew 24:36). He cautioned his disciples that, because of the uncertainty of the time of God’s deliverance, they/we should always keep watch and be ready (24:44). This is the word that I need to hear when I think I have this Advent and Christmas thing all figured out.
In addition to getting all excited for the sure and certain changing of our sanctuaries with the liturgical season (which I do), I need to focus on paying attention to what God is doing in the world. I believe that God wants us to be looking forward to and straining toward a time when people all over the world will discard the madness of war and violence and instead turn to God’s ways of reconciliation, justice, inclusion and embrace.
This Advent season, as we celebrate the changing of the church season and the imminent celebration of Jesus’ birth, let us be sure that we aren’t just celebrating a holy time, but also paying attention to how God’s good news is breaking forth into the world. As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth, let us also prepare to celebrate Jesus’ return!