By David Lose
Author, Preaching at the Crossroads, and Director of the Center for Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary
I’m writing this on the eve of Thanksgiving. And you’re probably reading it not too long afterward. I want to start here because church festivals often bear a distinct resemblance to our home celebrations. Both typically have three stages that are each important in their own way and bear their own unique gift to those who keep them.
Preparation and anticipation color the first stage. Knowing that we will be making and eating a large feast tomorrow, for instance, we had leftovers tonight, both to make some room in the refrigerator but also in anticipation of the feast to come. I mean, who would have a huge, specially prepared meal the night before Thanksgiving? Somehow, holding back a little before the feast makes the actual celebration all the sweeter.
Second, there’s the feast proper, the time we pull out all the stops. Turkey with the usual trimmings of potatoes, cranberry sauce, some kind of vegetable and more typically adorn our holiday tables, followed by pumpkin pie and home-made whipped cream. While the feast never seems to last quite as long as we’d like, it’s rare that you don’t feel like it was worth all the effort.
Third, there are the leftovers, a time to remember and revel in the holiday just celebrated. In some ways, this is my favorite part, as my favorite meal of the year may just be the turkey salad sandwiches just following Thanksgiving. The leftovers are special because each meal is a little reminder of the celebration we shared, extending that meal that never quite lasts long enough a whole lot farther.
Anticipation, feast, remembrance. This is how church festivals work as well. When it comes to the celebration of Christmas, for instance, we have four weeks of anticipation and preparation in Advent, the Feast of the Incarnation, and the season of Epiphany in which to remember and revel again and more deeply in the glory of Christmas. This year each of those seasons is rooted in the Gospel According to Matthew and, indeed, you get both an overview of significant themes in the gospel as well as selections from throughout Matthew’s story of Jesus.
In Advent, we follow the typical – if initially counter-intuitive – logic of the season by looking first to Jesus’ second advent at the end of time with a reading that emphasizes both the surprise and promise of Jesus’ return. The second and third Sundays focus on John the Baptist, herald of the Christ. In the reading for Advent 2, John is confident and hopeful about his mission to call people to repentance in anticipation of the Messiah’s arrival, but the next Sunday the Baptist seems strangely nervous about Jesus’ actual ministry of healing. On the Fourth Sunday we hear the story of Jesus’ birth from the perspective of Joseph, who heeds the words of the angel to take the pregnant Mary as his wife, trusting that the son she will bear is destined to redeem the world. Each week in Advent invites us to approach, rather than dive into, the Christmas story, urging us to identify with the range of emotions – anxiety, hope, doubt, trust – characters embody as they approach the coming Christ.
Christmas, of course, is the “feast proper,” and while we’ll depart Matthew on Christmas Eve for the more familiar Lucan text of shepherds, manger stalls, and angels, we return to Matthew for the First Sunday after Christmas to hear the difficult story of the “slaughter of the innocents.” A year after Newtown, this passage rings more true than ever with its grim reminder that it is a dark and difficult world into which the Christ child was born and came to redeem. Christmas 2 takes us to the prologue of John to invite us to enter into holy contemplation of the Incarnation. But one might also consider – since we are in the Year of Matthew and a day before Epiphany – preaching on the story of the Magi that only Matthew shares (Mt. 2:1-12).
Epiphany, then, is the season of revelry and remembrance, as we devote two Sundays to the baptism of Jesus (first in Matthew and then the report of Jesus’ baptism in John), a week on the calling of the disciples, and then four weeks on the Sermon on the Mount where we gain a sense of the distinct shape and character of the kingdom that Jesus comes to establish. Thought of this way, Epiphany gives us time to “unwrap” the gift of Christmas and enter into the life of the discipleship as we perceive more deeply the nature of the Kingdom Jesus proclaims.
You can find significantly more commentary and podcasts about each week’s readings at WorkingPreacher.org, but for now I’d invite you to consider how your preaching through this season invites us to dwell in the mood of each season, first anticipating, then celebrating, and finally reveling in the story of the God who forsook glory and power to take on our lot and our life that we might live with hope.
David J. Lose is Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, where he also serves as the Director of the Center for Biblical Preaching. He is the author of Making Sense of the Cross(2011), Making Sense of the Christian Faith (2010), Making Sense of Scripture (2009), and Confessing Jesus Christ: Preaching in a Postmodern World (2003). He speaks widely in the United States and abroad on preaching, Christian faith in a postmodern world, and biblical interpretation.