How does your year end? For many of us, the year closes with a rush of holidays in rapid succession—Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. They come with extra travel, extra traditions and, well, extra stress! Many of us hold on for dear life as we try to get to the end of one year and begin another.
Thanksgiving—is dominated by food, family, and football. On its heels comes Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year when the Christmas season begins in earnest. December is stuffed with year-end events, too many parties, overspending, and two month’s worth of calories. Then comes New Year’s Eve, and its back to work.
Most of us don’t have a plan to navigate the hectic holidays. There is no real connection that ties all these special days together. They are simply Hallmark holidays which happen rather haphazardly and leave us spent.
I’ll admit that for much of my adult life, I approached November and December with a kind of dread. Especially if you are in ministry, the season can leave you exhausted. But I’ve learned from experience that there is a better way to end one year and start another.
Jesus and Time
My approach is based on the conviction that if Jesus is Lord of all, this means he is the Lord over time. After all, Jesus identified himself in Revelation 1 as “the Alpha and the Omega,” “the first and the last.” And if he is the Lord over time, then shouldn’t we count time differently? Shouldn’t we think of all time, including these holidays, in reference to him?
Look at the Old Testament. God instituted sacred festivals that Israel was to celebrate annually. They commemorated both redemptive acts (such as Passover, the Exodus and atonement) as well as the yearly harvest (first fruits and the completion of the Fall in-gathering).
These feasts are ultimately fulfilled in the messiah. So it’s no surprise that in the early centuries of the church, Christians took this Old Testament time-keeping pattern and tied it to Christ’s coming. That is, they started counting time in a new way, with reference to Jesus.
Gradually, there appeared a liturgical Christian calendar that began with Advent, then Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost—the principal moments in Christ’s life and the principal seasons of the Christian year. This was an attempt to live life in reference to Jesus, and to measure our days by his person and work.
Granted, the Christian calendar was adopted some time after the close of the New Testament. But this time-keeping, time-counting pattern was learned from Scripture itself. It helped early Christians recall the ultimate redemptive drama and helped shape them spiritually.
Advent, Christmas and the Beginning of the Year
Thinking of time in a Christ-centered way caused me to see the value of Advent. Advent begins the liturgical year. The Christian year starts with an infusion of hope. The word advent means—coming. During this season, Christians reflect on the first coming of Christ, while longing for his second coming.
Advent is also a season of spiritual preparation or heart work. This four week period not only helps us prepare to celebrate his birth, but to ready ourselves for his return.
As a pastor, I’ve seen the immense spiritual benefits this season can bring to a congregation. Advent helps us get our bearings—to ponder, fast, even repent, and focus on the glorious work of Christ.
Of course, in the Christian calendar, Christmas is not just a day, but a season of celebration. It lasts for almost two weeks, up until Epiphany (January 6). January 1, our secular New Year’s Day, is simply part of that season. This is not to say it’s wrong to celebrate New Year’s. Our family usually has a party on New Year’s Eve. But it’s just a coda, a blip on our holiday screen. Because the real celebration of a new year has already begun—with Advent!
Thanksgiving, a Fitting End to the Year
What can we say about Thanksgiving? By a happy providence this holiday comes just before the beginning of Advent. Thanksgiving is our nation’s only official, religious holiday. Its immediate origins go back to presidential thanksgiving proclamations and pilgrim celebrations. However, the celebration of harvest festivals has deep Biblical roots as well.
The original point of Thanksgiving was not food, family and football—wonderful as those things are. Thanksgiving is about—giving thanks. As a pastor I would remind my congregation to “make Thanksgiving thanks giving!”
And the timing of all this is perfect if you think about it, because Thanksgiving comes at the very end of the Christian year. What better way to end a year than by counting our blessings!
As a pastor, I held an annual Thanksgiving morning or Thanksgiving eve testimony service. We devoted the entire service to the congregation giving public thanks to God for all the blessings given to us in the past year.
In preparation for our family Thanksgiving meal, I still have my kids reflect on the year and then write out what they are thankful for. At the table we put five kernels of corn by each place setting, signifying five blessings we will give thanks for during the meal.
This exercise of reflection and giving thanks is a wonderful way to sum up the year. And how wonderful then to jump from Thanksgiving to the first Sunday of Advent which comes almost immediately after!
Advent and Giving
By the way, this tight connection between Thanksgiving and Advent reminds us to take time and consider what gifts we will give in December. The spiritual focus of Advent is helpful in checking our impulses as to what we will do with our money. The season can have a sanctifying effect on our spending plans.
We need this because before we even digest our last bit of turkey, Black Friday arrives. The pressure comes fast to spend our money on all kinds of things. But Advent helps us check our desires and consider what meaningful gifts we should give at Christmas, not just to family and friends, but to our church and special ministries we feel led to support.
Approached in the right way, the Advent season, coming after a season of thanksgiving, provides a fitting framework for prayerfully considering what gifts to give.
This year at RTS, we are celebrating our 50th anniversary. Ministries like ours depends upon the faithful and generous year end support of friends as we seek to train a new generation of pastors and leaders for ministry.
Our hope is that you will approach your year-end differently—not haphazardly, not in a rush, or in frantic spending binge. But rather that you would move beyond Hallmark and connect the holiday dots.
Thanksgiving speaks of the Lord’s generosity to us this past year. Advent speaks of the hope we have in Christ. We not only have hope, but we can share this hope with others.
In other words, by connecting the dots, we can make the year end on a glorious, Christ-centered note. We end with thanks, we begin with hope. This not only helps us navigate the demands of a busy calendar, it’s also a much better way to end one year and begin another.
This article was first published in Ministry and Leadership magazine, Winter 2015 issue, and is being used by permission of Reformed Theological Seminary.