Seeing Christmas Anew

Happy New Year, Young Harris College.

What? Happy New Year! Wasn’t Thanksgiving just last week?

This greeting might seem oddly timed. After all, our Thanksgiving leftovers are still crowding our refrigerators and holiday decorations are just being drug out from their boxes and hung on doors and lampposts and eves. It cannot possibly be the New Year already! Don’t we still have a month of merry-making ahead of us; several weeks of last lectures, term papers, and final exams; and certainly much work and shopping and present wrapping to accomplish before such a seasonal salutation like “Happy New Year” is fitting?

Well, yes and no.

The answer just depends on the calendar we are following. If we are following the Gregorian civic calendar, then we still have just over a month of the year remaining. However, if we are following the church’s liturgical calendar, then, yesterday, with the first Sunday of Advent, we marked the first day of the New Year. Therefore, in one respect, we are a bit premature in saying “Happy New Year.” In another, we are just on time.

How can this be? Isn’t there just one calendar, one way to mark the passage of time? How can we concurrently be both still in the old year yet already in the new? The answer is rather simple: we do it all the time. Consciously or unconsciously, this sort of dual or parallel existence is something we manage.

A calendar is merely a way of tracking the passage of time, allowing us corporately to arrange our lives, activities, and obligations. Within our day-to-day lives, we regularly follow many calendars simultaneously, e.g., academic calendars, civic calendars, fiscal calendars, etc. Each calendar speaks to some part of us. Each calendar seeks to conform our lives to its rhythms, its practices, its deadlines, its celebrations, its peculiarities. These rhythms, practices, deadlines, celebrations, and peculiarities shape who we are and how we see the world. (To experience the tangible reality of how our different calendars shape us and how we see the world, try calling my uncle—who is a CPA—for a casual chat the first few weeks of April. The tax calendar not only shapes what he does, what he talks about, how he sees the world, but, also, when he eats, when he sleeps, and his general wellbeing.)

Calendars are powerful, meaning making, and life shaping.

The liturgical calendar, like other calendars, is a calendar intending to track the passage of time according to a certain rhythm with its accompanying practices and celebrations. This rhythm derives from the salvation narrative retold by the people called church with practices and celebrations meant to incarnate that story in our lives and our lives in it. As such, the story is made present in the world and our lives, ever so slowly, conform to the shape and character of that story through our regular performance of the narrative.

Most significantly, like any good story, this salvation narrative and its scheduled performance draw us out of ourselves and our own stories into a larger, transcendent story. At this time of the year with all that there is to distract and consume us, being reminded that our lives are part of a larger story is essential to getting us beyond ourselves.

While in college, I remember well the sense that all the anticipation and celebrations connected to the Christmas season could not possibly begin (or at least enjoyed) until after all my final exams and papers were completed. The academic calendar dominated everything about my life. I planned trips, scheduled work, and generally organized my life according to when classes took place, papers were due, and semesters ended. Everything outside that schedule was secondary. At the end of the fall term, I could hardly even listen to Christmas music on the radio for fear that the songs would inappropriately transport me to thoughts of carolers and hot drinks and family gatherings and Christmas trees and midnight services.

Yet, I did not realize that exactly what my life needed was transporting. I was consumed by my studies. I did not consume them. And, in the fury to accomplish all that was required, I missed the chance to reflect on much beyond my own life and work and studies. Such a life, I would discover, is wrapped far too tightly upon itself.

The very transcendent character of the liturgical calendar enables us to recognize that our lives are more than simply our own. The liturgical calendar reminds us that our lives are a gift, and, as a gift, they are meant to be given. Transcendence—this moving beyond ourselves, our parochial concerns, our immediate desires and wants—is one of the most precious presents offered during this season of celebration. Reminding us that our lives, through regular performance, are written into a larger, eternal, infinite narrative forces us beyond our own interests and toward the needs of others. That is no small feat, and it is no accident that generous giving is a natural outgrowth of such a transforming, transcending narrative.

This week at the college’s chapel service, we will celebrate the beginning of another year, marking the start of Advent, the imminence of Christmas, and the luminance of this season through the lighting of the college’s Christmas tree. In the midst of papers and lectures and exams and reports and meetings and everything else that consumes us this time of the year, I invite the entire campus to pause together on Wednesday evening at 7pm in the chapel to reflect on a story larger than ourselves, (through our participation in that story) to become a living part of the story, and (in sharing in that story’s transcendence) to transition our thoughts to those in need, those in war, those far from home, those without a home, those requiring love and life and light. For them and in some small, personal way, may we become this story of new life with its boundless new possibilities in this New Year.

See you in chapel on Wednesday and Happy New Year.

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