In an older reckoning, today is called the Sunday Next before Advent. It is the last Sunday of the church's year, the day when at the end of ordinary time we ask God to stir up in our hearts fresh energy for a new season of extraordinary time. 'Advent tells us Christ is near', and Advent starts in just one week. Hymn-writers and preachers of yore found this a good time to 'prep' those around them for the mediæval December's set themes of death, judgment, hell and heaven. We have it on good authority that there was a time without hyper-early carol muzak and strangely premature Christmas commerce beginning in October. Instead, once upon a moonbeam, churchfolk sang
Schoolchildren had other thoughts about what needful things were sure to be around the corner when each November they reached today's BCP collect and lessons:
We should be honest and admit that we have not thought very much about righteousness or eschatological rewards in the last week, let alone hot puddings in Victorian pots. Some of our thoughts have been with faraway friends, nearby deadlines, and upcoming travel. Still other thoughts have been concentrated in the beeswax of two candles we lighted at a church a few miles from home on Thursday afternoon: one for Thomas, who stands in need of courage, and one for Amber, whom we asked God to gift with strength.
But most of our thoughts have actually been about Advent calendars. Whether they are filled with chocolate, or their paper doors hide riddles and scripture texts, or whether they peel away to reveal parts of a composite picture, we have never lost our early fascination with them. They teach us gently how to be surprised by joy; how to be delighted by small things; how to save and focus fascination that can be 'new every morning' like the 'love our waking and uprising prove'. They tune the young heart—no matter the age of that heart's owner—to wait, to prepare, and to look at the same time to a near horizon and a far one. They teach us to peer carefully behind a door, or just below the surface of what we see, there to find hidden worlds and secret truths the naked eye will never find.
Advent calendars are the only day-by-day markers we know that impart so effectively to children (and many adults) the spirit of eager spiritual anticipation that ought to be the still, warm, quiet heart of Advent. That simple calendars can do this so well, in the guise of daily surprises, strikes us as more important than serious churchfolk may always notice. They bring the daily hope and daily sweetness of Christianity into the home—and into the heart—more tangibly than the creations of any liturgical committee or church commission can ever hope to do. We have purchased a few, and we can't wait to mark each day of the coming season with a brief moment of wondering, daring, opening, discovering, and thanking.
See you Sunday, no longer next before, but next within Advent.
* William Bullock, Songs of the Church (Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1854)
** The Times (London), November 25, 1863
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