Already and Not Yet

One of the things that I love most about liturgical time is how it is sometimes gloriously out of sync with the secular calendar in ways that remind me that I am a citizen of a New Creation. 

I've never really thought about this in terms of when exactly the year starts, though. Honestly for many years I've thought the most salient thing about the church year starting with Advent was that it made it more complicated to remember which version of the lectionary we're supposed to be using at any given time.

This year I embraced the notion of the New Year starting with Advent with special gusto, mainly out of eagerness to consign this year to the past. Good riddance to 2020! I don't care that there's a month left on the calendar, I'm ready to stick a fork in this year and call it DONE. And if the liturgical calendar gives me an excuse to do that, I'm all for it.

But of course the things about 2020 that I want to be over, aren't over. The pandemic is still raging out of control. We're still enduring this uncertain political interregnum of an outgoing president who desperately wants to hang on to his job, even though he doesn't seem to have any interest at all in actually doing the job. Even the semester isn't over -- we've sent the students home, but finals are still looming, grades have yet to be posted, and all the miscellaneous tasks that kept getting kicked down the road in the face of the chaos that was teaching in a pandemic still need to be tended to. Declaring this year over is at best wishful thinking and at worst an excuse for irresponsible abdication of the responsibilities still before me, right?

Here's the thing, though -- no matter where on the calendar you peg the end of one year and the start of the next, the things you want to be over aren't magically over, and the things you hope to begin won't magically happen just because there's a new number on the calendar. A million New Year's resolutions  abandoned by mid-January bear witness to that fact. And yet I think it can make a difference where, in the sequence of things, you choose to mark the new year. 

Secular New Year comes as the last hurrah of a frenetic holiday season, before turning back to the mundane duties of daily life in the coldest, darkest part of the year. The past is past and the onus is on us to become better people by sheer force of will. It makes me tired just thinking about it. 

Starting the year with Advent, on the other hand, means starting the year with a season of waiting, preparation, and hope. There's no pressure to make THIS the year when we finally get things right, because remembering that Christ has come involves remembering why it was necessary for him to come -- we sinful human beings cannot save ourselves, but God so loved us even when we got everything wrong that he sent his Son to save us. And remembering that Christ is coming again puts any good that we do, by God's enabling, in the context of what He is already doing to bring his Kingdom to consummation. 

It's a New Year. The Creator and Redeemer of the world is already there. Christ has come. Christ is coming. The uncertainty and trouble of 2020 is continuing into 2021, but the all-consuming anxiety of these few months are a small thing in the cosmic story the season invites us to remember every year. Take heart, our King has overcome the world. 


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