PRAYER, FASTING, ALMS: IMPORTANT DISCIPLINES

PRAYER, FASTING, ALMS: IMPORTANT DISCIPLINES

By the Rev’d Dr. Daniel McGrath

This year during Lent the topics of Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving will be featured in many sermons, written about in many parish newsletters, and thought about in detail by most practicing Churchmen around the country.  These three disciplines were commended by our Lord in his Sermon on the Mount and have been practiced in the Church since the time of the Apostles.  Let us bear in mind from the outset of this article two important points: first that these disciplines are not only to observed during Lent, but they are good for the whole Church Year and are to be re-discovered and implemented with greater attention during Lent; second, having disciplines such as these does not make Christianity into a religion of “works.”  Salvation is offered freely by God through Jesus Christ to those who believe, and we are given an opportunity to receive this gift by faith.  However, as members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and as his disciples, we wish to grow in maturity and to profit from these disciplines in the course of our development.

Let us begin with the topic prayer.  No Christian can survive long without prayer, for it strengthens our bond to God, opens us to His grace and keeps Him within our line of sight.  God soon fades out of the vision of those who do not pray.  How should we approach God in prayer?  Unfortunately, many people have the mistaken idea that prayer consists of merely asking God for things, as though he were the cosmic Room Service of our hotel!  Then, sinking to the lowest level of bad taste, people grumble when God does not respond in the exact way they hoped, and they even neglect to give Him the tip!  Let us remember that prayer is communion with God—it is not just asking Him for things. 

Anglicans learn from their Book of Common Prayer that there are different components to a life of prayer.  Adoration is the contemplation, enjoyment and worship of God; Thanksgiving is the acknowledgment of God’s good gifts to us; in Confession we repent of our sins and seek God’s forgiveness; we Petition God to supply our daily needs; and we offer Intercession for the needs of others.  Of course we learn how to pray from our Lord himself in his Sermon on the Mount, in which he offered the model that we know as “The Lord’s Prayer.”  He also encouraged his disciples to pray discretely, and “not as the hypocrites” who pray openly so that they can be seen by men.  He taught his disciples to pray simply, not with vain repetitions “as the heathen,” for God knows what we need and he hears even the most simple prayer.  Christ taught his disciples to pray in safety, by which I mean the safety of God’s will:  “Thy will be done.”  God has left himself the power of discretion in the manner and timing of his response to our prayers.  Otherwise, prayer would be far too dangerous an activity for man if we could just ask for anything our flesh desired.

Let us come now to the topic of Fasting.  In general terms, to fast is to eat sparingly or to abstain from all or certain foods.  Usually it is intended as a spiritual exercise.  Christians should fast because our Lord taught us to do so, both by his own example and by his instructions.  He said not, “if ye fast,” but rather “when ye fast.” Fasting was clearly practiced by the Apostles, especially when seeking the guidance of the Holy Ghost.  St. Paul fasted “oft.”  Fasting was practiced quite rigorously by some in the early Church, when it was considered to be a total abstinence from food, for all or part of the fast day.  In more recent times, fasting has come to mean merely a restricted diet, or a lessening in quantity on those days.

In the Anglican Church, fasting is expected, as one can see from the Table of Fast [Day]s in the front of the Prayer Book (page li).  This is a table of fast days on which “the Church requires such a measure of abstinence as is more especially suited to extraordinary acts and exercises of devotion.”  The Forty Days of Lent are included in this Table. 

What is the value of fasting?  Fasting is a useful aid to repentance, as we see with the people of Nineveh.  Fasting is useful as an aid to devotion, for it helps us prepare mentally and physically to approach God in worship without distractions.  Fasting is useful as a preparation for ministry, as when Our Lord fasted in the wilderness.  Fasting is an aid to increasing our spiritual focus.  When our Lord’s disciples failed in their attempts to help a demon-possessed boy, he commented that this could have happened only “by prayer and fasting.” 

When choosing something to fast from, there is room for discretion and ultimately the exact details of your own fast should be between you and God.  Yet our Lord did give a few guidelines in the Sermon on the Mount, and the experience of the Church is instructive, as well. First, we should fast simply.  That is to say, we should not be ostentatious in our fasting so that we are noticed and commended by men, but we should fast for God alone.  We should also fast safely.  The point of fasting is not to endanger our health or impair our ability to work or interact with others, but to engage in a profitable spiritual exercise.  Finally, we should fast appropriately.  Fasting is not merely an opportunity for self-improvement projects such as quitting smoking.  The time to adopt a healthy lifestyle is now, and we should not wait for Lent to do it. 

What then may we fast from? If you are interested in being more traditional, the most common fasts consist fasting until evening of each fast day, or in some traditions, until 3 o’clock, the hour of Christ’s death, or in yet other traditions, two light meals and one full meal each day. These fasts usually mean that you eat meat only once a day and that you abstain from meat on Fridays. We should fast from something which is good, pleasant, pleasurable, comfortable, but not necessary for our health and well-being.  Our fast should be inconspicuous.  For example, who’s going to notice if you choose the less comfortable chair when you walk into a room, or if you leave off your favorite TV program? For more guidance, you may of course ask your parish priest.

Let us conclude with the topic of Almsgiving: what is it? Almsgiving means giving money, goods or time to the special service of God.  “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”  The practice of almsgiving is a recognition on our part of the sovereignty of God.  By making a tangible return of our substance to him, we acknowledge that all we have is really his.  There are different kinds of alms, so let us begin with the most basic, the Tithe.  God commanded the agrarian society of Israel in the Old Testament to give a tenth of their produce to the service of God, and today it is commonly expected that Christians tithe on their income.  Another form of almsgiving is to relieve the poor through donations of money or goods.  This can be done through your parish or through community relief organizations.  The donation of time through volunteer work is a commendable form of Almsgiving, as is time spent in intercessory prayer. 

How do we go about almsgiving?  As with prayer and fasting, we should give alms discretely, and not “as the hypocrites” who do it in order to be noticed by men.  “Let not thy right hand know what thy left hand doeth.”  We should give alms cheerfully and not grudgingly or out of necessity, for “the Lord loveth a cheerful giver.”  We should give alms faithfully.  “To do good and to distribute, forget not, for with such sacrifices God is well-pleased.”  Let us think of how God provides for us day by day, year by year, and then try to mirror that faithfulness in our service to God and to our neighbor.

May God bless our Lenten observance, to the end that all we do may be for his glory and for our benefit.

by the Rev’d Dr. Daniel McGrath

Fr. Daniel McGrath is serving as a chaplain in the US Navy.  He earned the Doctor of Musical Arts Degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He resides in Southern California, with his wife and two children.

GIVING UP: ONLY BY FASTING AND PRAYER

GIVING UP: ONLY BY FASTING AND PRAYER

By the Rev’d Bradley Cunningham

It has been a pleasure these past (almost) 30 years to exercise the disciplines of Lent. Each year I learn more and recover more of the Church’s wisdom from Lent, and implement these pearls of wisdom into my life, and now into the lives of my children. As a priest, I enjoy sharing the basics of Lent with the latest group of converts. I tell them that, in my opinion, the Lenten disciplines are the most rewarding and joyful of the Christian year.

Of course fasting is the most obvious of the Lenten disciplines.  In typical Anglican fashion, if we want to understand and implement the practice of Lenten fasting, we must first turn to the Book of Common Prayer.

According to the classic Books of Common Prayer (page li in the 1928 American book), Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting for all Christians. Furthermore, all 40 days of Lent and all Fridays throughout the year (except those that fall between Christmas and Epiphany, inclusive) are also days which require special fasting and devotion. This sets up a sort of two tiered system of fasting. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, a complete fast from all food is assigned. On all other fast days, including the other days of Lent, there are no “hard and fast” rules that apply. However, the following guidelines, long established by tradition and practice, are helpful.

1.  Fasting on days other than Ash Wednesday and Good Friday means eating only one full meal per day, usually in the evening. It is, however, allowable to eat a small portion of food for sustenance at the regular meal times, so long as the portions do not amount to a full meal.

2.  It is also customary to abstain from eating any meat on all fast days. Meat is defined as any flesh from any animal which lives on land; mammal, fowl, or other. However, fish and especially seafood which lack bones are not considered meat and may be eaten on any fast day. This explains the saying, “fishy Friday.” Please note that a vegetarian will need to fast from other foods—perhaps tofu?—perhaps go vegan?

3.  Piety also calls on us to “give up” or fast from one thing which is particularly pleasant to us as individuals. Some “give up” dessert. Some “give up” Television.  I “give up” Dr. Pepper. My daughters “give up” the internet for 40 straight days!

4.  Finally, health and age considerations are factors. Young children, teenagers, and the elderly should fast with wisdom—safely and with health. However, all able bodied persons are expected to participate in the spiritual disciplines of Lent, including fasting.

One last consideration comes as a joyful relief. All Sundays in the year are in fact Feast Days of our Lord (see Am. BCP page l). This includes the Sundays which fall in Lent. Therefore, the fasting rules of Lent do not apply to any Sunday. Even during Lent we break our fasts on Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Those are the nuts and bolts of fasting.  But why fast at all?

First of all, fasting is prayer; specifically, it is the prayer of our flesh. Just as we discipline our minds, hearts, and souls to cry out to God, bearing our need to him, so we are to discipline our body to do the same. In fasting we bear our fleshly needs to the Lord, crying out in our bodies for God’s comfort and sustenance.

Second, Scripture and the witness of the Saints commend fasting. From Moses on Mount Sinai to our Lord Jesus in the desert, again and again we are taught that in order to consecrate ourselves for God’s presence, his revelation, and his work, we must engage in fasting prayer.

Thirdly, Jesus commends fasting to his disciples. In the Gospel, he instructs the disciples that their spiritual failures are to be amended by physical fasting and prayer. In fact, Jesus says that spiritual warfare requires fasting as preparation. The witness of the Gospels is this: no one can become a true prayer warrior, doing battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil, until one engages in fasting.

Finally, fasting illustrates our weakness so that we may rely on the strength of the Lord. In the Lenten Eucharistic readings, St. Paul commends himself and his Apostolic ministry to the Churches on the basis of his fasting on their behalf. His suffering and his physical fasting are an integral part of his ministry to the Church. Why? Because when he was weak (hungry), with his flesh crying out, “This much, O God, with an insatiable emptiness, I need you!” then the Lord strengthened him for the battle of ministry. Remember, also, that when Jesus was hungry from prayer, then Satan fled from him and angels ministered to him.

The Lenten fast is our time to become weak, to cry out in our flesh and our soul. When we are hungry for God, we will be made strong by the Spirit. This is the time of year when “giving up” means “becoming strong.”

The Rev’d Bradley Cunningham and his wife Dianna, with their six children, live in Fernandina Beach, Florida where Father Brad is the Rector of Holy Trinity Church.

ASH WEDNESDAY DEVOTIONAL

ASH WEDNESDAY DEVOTIONAL

By the Rev’d Dr. Charles Erlandson

Matthew 6:16-21

If you’re following along with the 1928 Prayer Book lectionary, you’ll have noticed that I’m meditating on the lesson from the Gospel Proper lesson and not the 2nd lesson from Morning Prayer (if not, then you probably won’t have a clue what I’m talking about!  Isn’t Anglicanese great?!)  On special days, such as Ash Wednesday, I’ll occasionally do this.  The lesson from Hebrews 12 that we would have otherwise read will be read during the 4th Sunday after Easter anyway – so you won’t have to wait long to get to it!

Today is, of course, Ash Wednesday.  For this reason, the lesson today is about fasting.  Jesus’ main point in the first part of Matthew 6 seems to be about how when we give alms, pray, and fast that we should do them unto the Lord, and not for men to see.  In its 1st century Jewish context, this was obviously a problem.  And it may still be a problem in some ways today.

However, behind the problem Jesus is addressing is an important assumption, and that assumption is that we are, in fact, giving alms, praying, and fasting.  In the U.S., unless you’re from a Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Episcopalian background, you are unlikely to practice the discipline of fasting.  Even if you have such a background, there’s still a good chance you don’t regularly fast.

If you have an Evangelical background, you may still be in the mode of reacting to Roman Catholicism so that you see fasting as something of a superstitious ritual.  But if you take the words of Jesus seriously, as we claim to, He assumes you’re fasting.  When you fast . . .” He says, assuming that His disciples are, in fact, fasting. 

The problem we have today is that we have largely lost the meaning and the practical “how to” of fasting.  To make some small step toward remedying this, I’m going to attempt to provide a full course meal on fasting in one meditation.  There will be a lot here to chew on, but I expect that as with other Daily Breads that some of you are returning to them later to meditate upon them more fully.

First, by what authority do we fast?  As I just mentioned, Jesus Himself assumes we are.  We also have the example of Jesus Himself fasting for 40 days and 40 nights, from which we obtain the 40-day fast of Lent.  We’ve also heard Jesus tell His disciples that some demons only come out by prayer and fasting.  As if this weren’t enough, we also have the examples of the apostles fasting after Christ’s Ascension in Acts 13:3 and 14:23 and 2 Corinthians 6:5 and 11:27.  The earliest Christian work we have outside of the New Testament, a late first-century work called The Didache (or Teaching of the Apostles), assumes that Christians will fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, and all of Church history until at least the Reformation also assumes Christian will practice fasting. 

Second, why do we fast?  I can think of at least 5 reasons. 

1.  To chastise, discipline, or train the flesh – so that it may be made subject to the spirit. 

2.  As a sign of repentance, a recognition of our sin and its seriousness, so that we might be outwardly and inwardly submitted to God and humbled before Him in all things.

3.  So that the spirit may be more fervent and earnest in prayer, clearing our minds and focusing our bodies on self-examination and our relationship with God.

4.  So that we may prepare ourselves before God rightly and devoutly to celebrate the Atoning Death and Glorious Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and especially to prepare for Easter.

5.  To unite ourselves with Jesus Christ, who fasted and prayed for 40 days and 40 nights. 

Third, how should we fast?  A whole book could be written on this, and there are many ways to fast – not just one. 

Traditionally, fasting was done from dawn until after Evening Prayer.  Fasting during Lent meant abstaining from meat and dairy products.  In general, the way I see fasting is as a kind of mnemonic device to remind us of the presence of God.  Like anything in the Christian life, if fasting ever gets to the point where we’re doing it just to be doing it and don’t know why we’re doing it, we’ve taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque.  The point is to remind us of our dependence on God for everything.

It works like this.  I fast (don’t eat), and I get hungry.  Every time I feel the pangs of hunger, I treat it as a divine messenger, an angel, from God reminding me to turn to Him.  What I do at that moment of turning to Him can take many forms, but the conscious turning to God at the moment of hunger is essential.  If we fast and get hungry and endure it just to show how “tough” we are, then fasting is useless.  But if we use every hunger pang from our fast to remind us of our dependence on God (which is one of the main points of hunger and eating anyway) and to turn to Him for sustenance, then fasting is of great spiritual benefit. 

So how should you fast?  For many of you, it might take the form of a fast from food.  Having said this, a total fast is not the only kind of fast that is possible, and if you’re not in the habit of fasting, don’t do something “heroic” (i.e. “stupid”!)  You might, for example, choose to give up certain meals or certain foods. 

You might choose to give up something else for Lent.  When I was a kid in North Babylon, New York (Lawn Giland), we were surrounded by Italian and Irish Roman Catholics.  Being “good Catholics,” they gave up things like smoking and bubblegum for Lent.  If you choose to give up something for Lent, choose something that you are too addicted to, for one of the reasons for fasting is to break us of our disproportionate attachments and addictions to the things of this world. 

I hate to spoil anybody’s fun, but no hair shirts or glass in shoes or flagellation this year for Lent!  Those devices are unnatural, and they always seemed to me to smack of someone trying too hard to compensate for some spiritual lack. 

One way I’ve discovered to fast year ‘round is to lay hold of the disappointments, pain, and suffering that God sends my way every day and year – without me seeking them.  Rather than me dictating what my pain or deprivation will be – why not let God choose?  If he has given you a physical ailment, or disappointment in circumstances or relationships – receive that as His godly discipline.  Every time you have a pang of pain (instead of hunger), use it to drive you back to God.  This is one of God’s purposes for the pain in your life anyway.  Lent allows us to highlight the practices of a disciple of Jesus Christ that should be taking place throughout our lives.

Finally, what about what I call a “positive fast”?  Instead of simply “giving up” something for Lent and depriving yourself, what about “taking up” something for Lent?  Why not dedicate yourself to a time of daily devotion, or more fervent prayer?  Why not examine some of the resolutions you’ve made in your daily meditations and find one or more of these to “take up” during Lent?  A good, traditional, example is the discipline of giving alms (which Jesus also mentions in Matthew 6.)   

Best of all, do both: give something up for Lent and take something up for Lent.  Just as we must both mortify the flesh and allow God to sanctify us, it’s a good idea to replace the thing you’ve given up with some godly work that you “take up.” 

Like I said earlier, I’ve given you a lot to chew on.  As with all of the Daily Breads, don’t try to gorge on it all at once: as in overeating food, you might find that it gives you a “soul-ache”!  Instead, focus on one particular way to fast this year.  

May God bless whatever fast you undertake during Lent as a means of drawing you closer to Him. 

Resolution and Point for Meditation:

Prayerfully choose a fast for Lent this year.

Prayer: O Lord, who for our sake fasted 40 days and 40 nights, give us grace to fast, that our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may obey You in righteousness and holiness and be drawn ever closer to You, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.  Amen. 

Fr. Charles Erlandson is the assistant rector at Good Shepherd Reformed Episcopal Church in Tyler, TX, where he also serves as a high school teacher at Good Shepherd School. He holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (U.K.), teaches as an adjunct professor at Cranmer Theological House, and has a number of other books in progress. His daily devotional, “Give Us This Day,” can be found at <http://giveusthisdaydevotional.com/>.

Article originally published in the original email/print journal Earth & Altar, in the Lent, 2007 edition.

RISE UP AMONG US: THE SEASON OF ADVENT

RISE UP AMONG US: THE SEASON OF ADVENT

By the Rev’d Dr. Derrick Hassert

Lex orandi, lex credendi. The law of prayer is the law of belief. This is a hallmark of classical Anglican Christianity. It oftentimes seems that Anglicans cling to a Prayer Book out of step with the modern age, a Prayer Book that has undergone relatively minor revisions and rearrangements since it was introduced hundreds of years ago. Do we cling to this Book of Common Prayer as some manner of museum piece, some cultural artifact? If Anglicans answer “yes,” we cling to the Prayer Book and its contents for the wrong reason. It should be acknowledged and explained, both within and outside of the Anglican tradition, that we cherish the Prayer Book because we believe it shapes and guides the Christian through an orthodox and biblical way of living the Catholic Faith. It does so by guiding the faithful through the Scriptures, through the doctrines, and through the Life of Christ as presented in the Church year.

As we have entered a new season of the liturgical calendar, we are called upon to relive the humble entry of the Word of God into the fleshy nature of our created existence. This season, Advent (which means “coming”) is often held to be the beginning of the Church year, for it is in the Incarnation that we find the genesis of Christianity itself. It is the time when we prepare in earnest for the coming of our Savior. While the Christmas season is indeed joyous and festive, too often we confuse Advent, this period of time before Christmas, with Christmas proper and fail to contemplate the season we are actually in and the reason for its existence in the life of the Church. The liturgical color of purple should alert us to the fact that this is a penitential season, a season of reflection and repentance. In the collects of this season we pray to “cast away the works of darkness.” We pray that the “hearts of the disobedient” may be turned to “the wisdom of the just.” We are forced to acknowledge that “through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us.” We pray for grace and the help of God.      

Christianity begins with the realization that we can’t save ourselves, that we can’t ascend to God.  God must descend to man.  In Christ, God descends to Man so that Man may be reconciled to God. Indeed, we need to be saved, yet we can’t do the saving ourselves. It has often been said that one of the clearly objective truths of Christianity is the doctrine of original sin, that we humans are crooked, erring individuals. We stray like lost sheep, following our own paths rather than what we know to be right. C.S. Lewis comments that, due to the abuse of free will in Adam’s choice, “Man is now a horror to God and to himself and a creature ill-adapted to the universe.” Now, according to our fallen natures, we are alienated from God.  It is not that God has lost us. We have lost Him. We have lost our Creator. Humanity has been separated from God’s grace by its own sin.  We share the same humanity as Adam, and as such our free will is no longer truly free.  We are bound by sin.  As the Confession for Morning Prayer states with alarming clarity “There is no health in us.”

It has often been said that there are three types of churches within the Christian faith—churches of Easter, churches of the Cross, and churches of the Incarnation; three specific “traditions” of Christianity based upon what they emphasize. Lutherans and Roman Catholics are often mentioned as examples of “churches of the Cross,” for placing a great deal of emphasis in preaching and in the liturgy on the sacrifice of Christ and its significance.  The Eastern Orthodox are often said to be “churches of the Resurrection,” for the emphasis within their liturgy, art, and theology on the Risen Christ—or Christ as King.  Anglicans are usually mentioned as the “church of the Incarnation,” a tradition often associated with the beautiful worship, customs, and hymns of the Christmas season. A full Christianity requires not only the glory of the Resurrection, but the pain and loss of the Crucifixion as well—and for either of these to have significance for humanity, the Incarnation must be held as a foundational truth.  It is in Advent that we prepare ourselves for this reality and why it occurred. God dwelt amongst, was tabernacled amongst His people.  He came to live and die as one of us, to ransom us from lives held captive by sin. Many Christians would like to have the glory of the Cross without the pain and loss of the Crucifixion (skipping Good Friday and going directly Easter). Others would suggest that the Cross can be embraced without the reality of empty tomb.  Still others would suggest that we can have both the meaning of the Resurrection and the Crucifixion, but that we don’t need to embrace the full humanity and divinity of Christ.  We need all three for a full and meaningful teaching of the Christian faith.

Humanity, left to its own devices, shows itself to be anything but progressive or ascending in its nature. Before the Second World War and the horrors of Holocaust, man’s ascension—his evolution—through reason and science were taken as given truths.  However, the consequences of sin ravage the history of humanity for all to see, even to the present day. Sadly, the myth that we can perfect ourselves through our own work and merits is becoming prevalent once again, but it is just that—a myth. An objective accounting of reality cannot deny that our will, bound and led by sin, has become a sickness to humanity and to creation. This is the reality that demands the coming of Christ, God made man for our sake. It is the reality that we are confronted with in the history of God’s chosen people Israel. As Israel had to prepare for the coming of the Messiah in history in its long history with the Law, so too must we prepare our hearts for His coming by acknowledging our utter dependence upon God and His mercy.

When the fourth Sunday in Advent comes upon us, let us pray in earnest this wonderful collect:

“O Lord, raise up raise up, we pray thee, thy power, and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us, thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be honour and glory, world with out end. Amen.”

Fr. Derrick Hassert is a native of Illinois. With a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience, Fr. Hassert studied theology at St. Augustine’s Theological Institute in Charlottesville, VA. Fr. Derrick serves as curate at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Tinley Park, Illinois, and is also professor of psychology at Trinity Christian College.

Article originally published in the original email/print journal Earth & Altar, in the Advent, 2006 edition.

WAKE, AWAKE, FOR NIGHT IS FLYING

WAKE, AWAKE, FOR NIGHT IS FLYING

By the Rev’d Dr. Charles Erlandson

Advent is God’s cosmic alarm clock.

Since we humans are creatures bound by time and we will have calendars, we will observe hours and days and times and seasons.  We will set alarm clocks and timers so that we don’t miss something important.  Many of us will even observe the holy time that is set aside for our favorite TV show or sporting event and even perform the supererogatory work of learning how to program those newfangled digital recording devices—or perhaps some are still using their old VCR.

But the fact is that we often don’t sanctify the time that is one of God’s choicest gifts.  Like the characters in Kerouac’s On the Road, we claim to know time, when in reality we are more likely to waste time or kill time than we are to redeem or know it.

A simple question will illustrate our common thinking about time.  The question is: “When does the new year begin?”  Most of us would instinctively answer “January 1 (duh!).”  Some might answer, “When the fiscal year begins,” and others might groan and say that the new year begins in the middle of August when school starts.

But why not observe the church calendar, not just as a nice little ornament of our lives but as the structure of our time?  For Christians, Advent is our New Year’s.

And Advent is God’s cosmic alarm clock.

As such, Advent is necessary because Trinity is often a season of sleep and slumber.  It’s a long season, and sometimes we don’t know how to occupy the time during Trinity.  It’s also necessary because something so extraordinary and marvelous is about to happen—the Coming of Jesus Christ—that we must awake from our slumber and prepare ourselves.

The truth is that we need theological alarm clocks every hour and every day, and not just every year.  We have a nasty habit of hitting the snooze alarm in our lives and sleeping through the next alarm.  We love to go back for a little sleep, a little slumber, believing that we will spontaneously wake up.  But without our theological alarm clocks, the truth is we will never awake but continue to drift into a deeper and deeper spiritual slumber.

Once we’ve been awakened again, how shall we use the time of Advent that God has given us?  The answer is that Advent is a season of preparation.  We’ve all heard the saying, “Prepare to meet your maker!”  It’s usually heard in the context of someone about to be killed, but it has a special meaning with regard to Advent, because preparing to meet our Maker and Savior is the whole point of Advent and why we must be awakened.  We prepare to meet our God, our Maker, because He has come to meet us in His first Advent or Coming.  “Immanuel,” “God with us,” is the reason we celebrate Christmas.  God has broken into the time and history of our lives and become one of us.  Because of the love and glory and cosmic implications of God’s dramatic action in His incarnation, His first coming to us, we’d better prepare our hearts to receive Him as our long expected Savior.

But Advent also celebrates the Second Advent or Second Coming of Jesus Christ.  While Christmas is historically past (though in reality it persists every day of our lives), the Second Coming, at which Jesus Christ will judge both the quick and the dead, is yet to come.  One day, at the Second Coming, we will meet our Maker with finality and be summoned to give an account of our lives.  At that time, or at the time we die, whichever comes first, our time will have run out.  So we’d better have awakened and prepared beforehand.

It always amazes me how much time, money, and effort even Christians in America spend preparing for the Advent of Christmas – not for the Advent of Christ that’s celebrated at Christmas – but for the Advent of Christmas as a holiday (and not necessarily a holy day.)  We carefully save our money and budget it so that we can give each other gifts.  We prepare months or even a year in advance to make sure we will be able to go where we want to go to celebrate Christmas the next year. We make a big deal about it with our children and know how to fill their little lives with joyful anticipation.

But do we spend as much time and energy preparing for the coming, not of Santa Claus, but of the Lord Jesus Christ?  In Advent, we are given up to four entire weeks to prepare.  This year, why not use Advent as a time of holy preparation?

Advent is here, which means the King is coming.

Are you ready?

Fr. Charles Erlandson is the assistant rector at Good Shepherd Reformed Episcopal Church in Tyler, TX, where he also serves as a high school teacher at Good Shepherd School. He holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (U.K.), teaches as an adjunct professor at Cranmer Theological House, and has a number of other books in progress. His daily devotional, “Give Us This Day,” can be found at <http://giveusthisdaydevotional.com/>.

Article originally published in the original email/print journal Earth & Altar, in the Advent, 2006 edition.

THE PURPLE HAZE OF ADVENT

THE PURPLE HAZE OF ADVENT

Advent as the Little Lent

Step into an Anglican church this time of year and you will most likely find a profusion of purple—purple banners, purple Bible markers, purple vestments. More than just a color choice, purple is a symbol that marks the character or flavor of the season of Advent and ties this season to the much longer season of Lent, which is very often also purple. In fact, Advent is called the Little Lent in many Eastern Orthodox churches. Of course, in contemporary American Culture and acculturated American denominations, Advent has long been replaced by the pre-Christmas season, the season for Santa Clause and consumerism.

In postmodern America, however, Advent is making something of a comeback as Advent wreaths suddenly pop up in Churches, mostly as a new way to celebrate the Christmas season, as witnessed also by the postmodern use of red and green candles instead of purple and rose.  But what is the understanding and meaning behind an Advent that is simply a new way to celebrate Christmas? The purple traditions help us to understand what Advent is intended to be.

So, what is Advent?  Advent, which is Latin for “to come”, is a season of the Church year that anticipates the coming of Christ.  There is a double theme for Advent. Christians celebrate the “first” Advent of Christ, when he came as a man for our salvation, and just as importantly, we long for and pray for the “second” Advent of Christ, when he shall come again to judge the world and to complete his victory.  Since our focus is on the Advent of Christ, the season is spent as a time of preparation to receive Christ and to meet him face to face.

Therefore, Advent, though expectant and joyous, is also a penitential season wherein Christians are to examine their hearts and their lives; to check the condition of their souls in preparation both of celebrating the Nativity of our Lord Christ and of the coming judgment day of Christ’s return.

This penitential nature makes sense of calling Advent  the “Little Lent.”  Lent is 40 days long, Advent is anywhere from 22 to 28 days long.  Thus, it is “littler” than Lent, but it is of a similar nature as a season.  Fasting, penitence, increased spiritual devotions and works of charity are typical activities for Lent, but also for Advent.  Lent is a preparation for celebrating the Resurrection, Advent a preparation for celebrating the incarnation and the second coming of our Lord.

Three Purple, One Rose—Traditions of Advent

As the Church works to reclaim Advent as a season of the Christian year, some traditions will need to be recovered and put to use.  Below is a list of customs that exist in the Anglican tradition for the season of Advent that Churches and families can use as possible to establish traditions in homes and parishes.

Advent Lessons and Carols
We’ve all heard of Christmas Lessons and Carols. But did you know that, decades ago, St. John’s College, Cambridge, gave the first service of Advent Lessons and Carols for those students who would miss the Christmas service while home for the holidays? The Church hymnal has a wealth of wonderful Advent carols which, when added to our tradition, will enrich our theology and our lives.

The Advent Wreath 
Have one at Church and use one at home! Light the candles during family prayer times, using the collect for the Day and for Advent, and talk about the marking of time and the coming into the world of the light of Christ incarnate. But for goodness’ sake, use three purple candles and one rose colored candle (not green and red!).

Play Advent Music Advent music is for Advent! Christmas music is for Christmas!  Of course you can cheat a bit, but this practical tradition can make a big difference in our understanding of the season as music so often shapes our emotions and moods and is a big part of most people’s context.  Then, of course, play Christmas music not only on Christmas Day, but all the way through Christmastide, thus reclaiming Christmas as a season too.

Wait for it Hold off on putting up your Christmas tree and Christmas lights. In times past, the tradition was to put up the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve.  (And, please do not take down the tree and the lights until Epiphany, January 6.)  The traditions of a season help us to understand that season and keep the seasons effective. Of course, parties during Advent are somewhat unavoidable in our culture, but Christians could at least hold off throwing their own parties until the party season of December 25 through January 6.  Remember, part of Advent’s character is about penitence and fasting—big feasts, candies, pies and fudge all seem to be just a little out of place in Advent.

Exercise your Faith Seek to use, during Advent, the spiritual disciplines God has given us.

1. Pray. Make your prayer life stronger, using resources like the daily office and family prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, and read the lectionary readings found therein, particularly with the Advent themes in mind.

2. Seek. Ask a pastor or spiritual advisor for some resources, perhaps some devotional reading.  Seek out spiritual counsel and advice from a priest or your spiritual director.

3. Fast. Seek to practice the discipline of fasting.  If you’re new to it, pick one day a week perhaps, to fast during the day, breaking your fast in the evening, preferably with Christian brothers and sisters and preferably in connection with corporate prayer and worship.

4. Confess. Consider making an appointment with your priest to participate in private confession and Absolution. This healthy discipline will assist us in examining our hearts and in setting us free from sin, so that we are prepared to meet our Judge.

5. Work. Choose a godly, charitable activity that you have not normally practiced, and do it as a good work done unto the Lord. Show forth the love of Christ by your actions in some new and challenging way, developing your godly character along the way.