Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 Psalm 90: 1-12 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 Matthew 25:14-30
Last Sunday I talked about some of what I learned at our cottage dinners. Many of you did not grow up in the Episcopal church and thus may not understand some of our traditions. Our church seasons are part of our tradition and this time of year, our observance of Advent is out of sync with the rest of the world. So, today I’d like to talk some about our church seasons.
We are in what is known as the Season after Pentecost, also referred to by some as Ordinary time. It is the longest season of our church year and it is quickly drawing to a close. The Season after Pentecost ends when Advent begins and with it, the church year ends. Thus, the first Sunday of Advent, which this year is on December 3rd, is the beginning of our New Church Year.
Not only does the Episcopal Church Calendar differ from the one used in our society, we do not observe Christmas like most other denominations. We actually observe Advent, the four Sunday’s before Christmas, as a season of preparation and not as a part of the season of Christmas. In the early church, it was felt that we needed to spend time remembering that Jesus came to save us from our sins, before we began celebrating his arrival. Thus, Advent began as a penitential season, like Lent, in which we were to focus on our need to repent. Our emphasis has shifted somewhat from reflection and repentance to a time of preparation, of making room in our lives for Jesus, and of anticipation. It is still not, however, a time for celebration.
You may notice that as the church year comes to a close, our gospel readings are of Jesus heading to Jerusalem and to the cross. His teachings reflect the need for us to be faithful stewards with what is entrusted to us, and our need to be prepared, to be ready, for God’s judgement.
We see both of these themes in today’s gospel in which Jesus tells the story of the three servants who are entrusted with large sums of money. A talent refers to the weight of precious metals. So, if the talent was of silver, it was worth 15 times a person’s typical annual wage in that day. Two of the three servants who have been entrusted with their master’s talents, invest them, the third hides his out of fear. In the end, the ones who have invested their talents are rewarded, and the one who buried the treasure in order to keep it safe, is “thrown in the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” We are expected to use our talents wisely and not to hide out of fear.
In the season of Advent, the scriptures will also remind us of the need to repent as they tell of John the Baptist who comes to prepare the way for the Messiah. Midway through Advent, the focus shifts and we begin to prepare for the birth of Jesus.
The scriptures do not include a countdown for Christmas, but in our tradition, we do have an Advent wreath in which we can count down the number of Sundays left before we celebrate the birth of our Savior. The season of Christmas is the shortest season of our church year and it begins at sunset on Christmas Eve. Why at sunset? The Jewish day begins at sunset; so, our tradition has feast days beginning when the sun goes down. Thus, for us, Christmas begins at sunset on Christmas Eve and Easter begins at sunset on the night before Easter Sunday! So, in our tradition, the church is not decorated for Christmas until after the 4th Sunday of Advent.
The early Christians observed Jewish tradition. Then, as the number of Gentile converts increased, the importance of following Jewish law was called into question and largely faded away – but you might be surprised at all the places it remains a part of our Christian practices. Vigils are just one the ways we continue to observe Jewish traditions.
I was in Jerusalem on Pentecost on one of the rare occasions when the Christian and Jewish calendars came together. The celebration of Pentecost is, in the Jewish faith, a time to give thanks for the gift of the law, given to Moses. The commandments were given to the people to help them live in relationship with God and each other. The Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four sections: the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter.
On the eve of Pentecost, the Jewish faithful gather at the original temple wall in the Jewish Quarter. The celebration continues unto sunrise and many Christians came to observe this vigil with them, as the feast of Pentecost has such significance to both faiths.
While faithful Jews celebrated the gift of the law by reading from the Torah, Christians could remember that it was during the celebration of this feast, of Pentecost, that the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles in Jerusalem. Peter then began telling those gathered the good news of Jesus Christ. In Acts, we are told that on “that day, three thousand persons” were baptized and became followers of Christ. And, we are told, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Thus, we celebrate the birth of the Christian Church on Pentecost Sunday.
Today may not be the Feast of Pentecost, but your gifts, your pledges, which we will consecrate today and the baptisms (at our 10:30 Service) give life to this church, this parish. Baptisms are not only an opportunity for us to renew our baptismal vows, it is a reminder of the fact that to be a Christian means we look at the world differently. We have different priorities. Our year centers around two events, the birth of Jesus and the resurrection of Christ – not the calendar used by the world and by businesses.
Thus, we use the season of Advent to remember why Christ came into the world, just as we use the season of Lent to remember why Jesus died on the cross. Christ came to reconcile us to God, because of the love God has for each of us. He died on the cross for the same reason, he died because he loves us. In the prayer of thanksgiving for the water of baptism, I will say: “We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”
To be reborn in baptism means we not only see the world differently, we live differently. We pledge to live a life centered on Christ and not on ourselves. Observing our calendar, observing Advent when others are already celebrating Christmas, helps us to remember the true meaning of Christmas. Our traditions and our church seasons have meaning.
We come to St. Paul’s to worship and to be renewed so that we can then go forth living into our baptismal promises to seek Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. It is my prayer that in the midst of the chaos of getting ready for Christmas, we may find comfort and solace and respite here on Sunday mornings.
Let us pray.
Loving and gracious God, help us to be thankful this week for the gift of your Spirit in baptism. Strengthen us to do your will and share your love with others. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.