For serious Christians around the world, the New Year will not begin Jan. 1 but precisely one month earlier -- on the first Sunday of Advent. Like the secular year it will be fraught with dangers and challenges -- albeit different ones.
It is of course not fashionable to ponder impending gloom at Yuletide; this pagan name for Christmas is being used here quite deliberately because the rise of neo-paganism is precisely one of the present challenges.
Mixed in a syncretistic manner with saccharine remnants of Christianity it seemingly imperils the Body of Christ just as much as Gnosticism did in the early centuries of the Church. If the vast majority of American or European "believers" no longer acknowledges the absolute truth of the incarnate Word of God, as poll after poll shows, then the faith itself has lost its foundation.
This is the dark side of contemporary Christianity in its former bastions, Europe and North America. This dark side is offset by promising developments elsewhere in the world, as we shall see later. But first the question must be asked: Why should there be a church year at all? Would it not suffice to just have a secular year and fit in the liturgical features -- readings, colors, hymns and rituals -- for those who want them?
Maybe. But then at a time of unprecedented faith confusion, the church year provides a wonderful alternative structure to Christians living in a spiritually increasingly unstructured world. It enables them to participate in an event of breathtaking grandeur: the incarnation, ministry, passion and resurrection of the very aspect of God that ordered the universe at creation (John 1:3) and who became the new Adam, the prototype after whom man is called to pattern himself.
Yes, is does make a difference if the year commences not with fireworks that might remind one of the sounds of war, which dominate this era, but with four weeks of prayer and song before the celebration of Christ's birth.
At a time when terror threatens the physical world it does make a difference when we move from marker to marker in the mid-point of salvation history, as Alsatian theologian Oscar Cullmann called the Christ event. It makes a difference that regardless of the secular joys and horrors around us we commemorate Christ's self-revelation at Epiphany, participate in his passion during Lent, and rejoice in his resurrection at Easter.
All this was done "for me," Luther never ceased to point out. It was not done for the postmodern new trinity called, "me, myself and I," as theologian and psychologist Christopher Hershman keeps mocking contemporary hubris. No, it was done "for me" in the sense of one who is in need of salvation.
At a time when the world appears to be ripping itself apart, it does make a difference that the church year then goes on to teach us of a different reality. During the long liturgically "green season" after Pentecost we are reminded of the true meaning of the Church, which was born on that day 50 days after Easter at around 33 A.D.
We are told who we are, regardless of national, denominational, even martial divisions -- we are part of one body, the body of Christ
Living according to the church year is an antidote against pessimism, which, like optimism, is a childish category, according to philosopher Martin Heidegger. Against such childishness, the Christian posits hope, a theological virtue that supersedes despair and the sense of dereliction even Christ experienced on the Cross: "Why hast thou forsaken me?"
The pessimist would say: "It's all over. All the church has to offer is futile debates over sexual orientation. Look, how low the Church has sunk -- a den of child molesters and of faithless bishops such as the dreaded John Spong." Nothing makes the childishness of pessimists more evident than remarks like these.
But then consider the flip side. Consider the rapid growth of a sturdy kind of Christianity throughout the developing world. Consider how its theologians have not set out to re-evangelize those whose ancestors had once evangelized their forebears -- in particular Western Europeans.
Consider who it is that attracts young seekers by the millions -- not the glib salesmen of cheap grace, be they loud televangelists or the false prophets of a linear theology that portrays itself as "liberal."
No, the ones drawing the largest crowds of young seekers are two octogenarians shaking with Parkinson's: Pope John Paul II and Billy Graham, who do not allow their suffering to prevent them from exercising their ministry. As the Pope says, Christ did not come down from the cross either, and it is after Christ that believers are to pattern themselves, not after the swinish temptations of Internet pornography, as does Bishop Spong, columnist for ThePosition.com.
The Spongs of this world do not have a clue as to how demodé they really are. After the calamitous collapse of modern materialism and in anticipation of the traceless disappearance of postmodernity's profusion of "truths," the young seek integrity, which explains the old pope's popularity, according to the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, President of the Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York.
This is a global phenomenon. In Europe, new studies show that a return to religion is underway, especially in urban center. "But none other than the living witness of believers impresses young seekers," says the Rev. Johannes Richter, former regional bishop of Leipzig in the former East Germany.
And in America, "the kids keep telling grownups, "'Show me,' by which they mean 'show me that you have a spiritual life worth passing on,'" reports Presbyterian Mark Yaconelli, co-director of San Francisco Theological Seminary's Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project.
All this may well be meaningless to those who live exclusively according to the secular calendar, which, if anything, offers little more than the childish optimism or pessimism spread by horoscopes.
But living by the church year is something else. It is an exercise of hope, where the yearnings of the young and the appeal of very old disciples such as the Pope and Graham have their place.
For the church year has a motto the secular year despite all its merits cannot provide: "In the worlds you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." (John 16:33).