Many people are used to imagining countdowns, streamers, champagne, Times Square festivities and the annual appearance of TV's Dick Clark when they think about a new year. In addition to the parties, many might also anticipate making some sort of new-year's resolution: eating better, going to the gym, quitting smoking and the like.
If these are some of the ways that women and men of our age think about the coming new year, how do Christians think about the coming new church year?
I would bet that most people don't think much about the new church year, which, for most Christians, always begins on the First Sunday of Advent, and happens to fall on Dec. 2 this year. My suspicion is that the new church year gets overshadowed by the Thanksgiving holiday that usually closely precedes it and the Christmas-preparation (i.e., shopping) blitz that follows. But we would be wise to take a little more time and pay closer attention to this largely uncelebrated transition, for it is a perfect opportunity for us to reexamine our lives, reassess our priorities, and recommit ourselves to our call as women and men who seek to follow the Gospel.
Those who are Roman Catholics, and those who belong to faith communities that use the common lectionary (which frequently parallels the Catholic cycle of readings), have been hearing Gospel passages in these last few weeks of Ordinary Time that are, I believe, perfect preparatory reflections for those preparing to make some Advent Resolutions.
As the old church year comes to a close, beginning with the middle of October, the Gospel selections have tended to focus on various interactions between Jesus and his disciples (or would-be disciples) who are interested in knowing what it takes to be a good follower of Christ.
Take, for example, the Gospel selection from the Twenty-Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time. We have the account of the wealthy man who approaches Jesus with the question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17-30). At first, Jesus' response is to reaffirm the second part of the Covenant with Moses: love your neighbor. This is illustrated by the last seven commandments of the Decalogue (you know: you shall not kill, commit adultery, lie, etc.).
When the wealthy man assures Jesus that he has been faithfully observing that part of the Covenant, Jesus then says that all that remains is for him to be faithful to the first part of the Decalogue, the part that focuses on the love of God. The way Jesus expresses this is in terms of the man's need to sell his many possessions and give his wealth to the poor. At first, and to modern ears, this seems unrelated to the "love of God" portion of one's faith. That is until one recalls the prohibition against "other gods" or idols. And upon hearing this, the man walked away sad after this encounter because, as the Gospel of Mark tells us, "he had many possessions."
Lots of us miss the connection here, but Jesus links the unseen actions and presumed priorities of the wealthy man with his apparent lack of authenticity in following the first part of the Decalogue. What does this man, what do we have to do to inherit eternal life? Make sure that (a) we love our brothers and sisters and (b) keep our priorities in order, not placing wealth, power, status and other idols before God.
This message is emphasized again the following week in our cycle of readings when Jesus tells his disciples to be the servants of all, that the last will be first, and so on (Mark 10:35-45). The logic of Christianity is not that of the world, it is not the "individual comes first," and it is certainly not that of our own choosing. Each of the Gospel passages in the weeks leading to the new church year bring this contrast between the priorities of the world and the priorities of God's Kingdom into strong relief. As Jesus says to Pilate in the Gospel passage for the last Sunday of the Church year: "My Kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36).
What better time is there in our contemporary market-driven culture to pause and reflect on these questions than during that time between Thanksgiving and Christmas? The church's new year comes at a perfect moment for us to take seriously Jesus's message to his disciples about reassessing priorities and Christian discipleship.
It is in this spirit that I want to suggest we all take the beginning of the new church year this week as an opportunity to make some "Advent resolutions."
While many people take the transition to a new calendar year as a time to examine health and wellness habits of the fitness, work, financial, mental and emotional variety, the new church year could be a time for us to similarly examine our spiritual and prayer habits.
How do I pray? How do I demonstrate love of God and neighbor? What gets in my way of living the Gospel life: the desire for money, power, success, control or the like? When I think of Jesus' response to the wealthy man and put myself in his place, do I walk away sad because I cannot conceive of letting go of the idols of my life?
Perhaps our new church year or Advent resolutions might take the form of developing our relationship with God like we would with other loved ones by dedicating more time to be alone with God. We might set a little time aside each day to pray, meditate or do some other spiritual practice. We might dedicate some of our energy and resources to serve others in doing good works, volunteering, mentoring or some other form of expressing our love of neighbor. We might commit ourselves to being more conscious of the way we look at the world, view creation, use earthly resources, and support or resist violence in our own lives.
There is so much that can be done, but we have to be willing to actually do these things. Will we let such resolutions go the way of so many of our new-calendar-year's resolutions? Or will we take seriously the liturgical cycle that provides us with the scriptural reminders, the prayerful space, and the Gospel model for making and sticking with what we set out to do as recommitted Christians in our age?
What will your Advent resolution be this new church year? And will you stick with it?