I find the transition point from the end of the church year and the beginning of the next to be one of the most interesting in the liturgical cycle. The readings for the end of the year and for Advent are very similar, and for good reason. All of creation waited for the fulfillment of God’s promise of a Savior. That fulfillment finally arrives as we walk through the events of Advent and hear the good news of God made flesh on Christmas.
As we hear the Advent and Christmas stories again, we learn something about our own place in God’s plan of salvation. We are also waiting for the arrival of the Savior. He who came to earth once will come again, bringing his work of salvation to its conclusion. Here we learn what it means to be a people who are looking forward, eagerly expecting the arrival of the One who will save us. Our sins are forgiven, but sin and death are still a part of the world. God’s work is not done and we await the day when these things will be no more.
I write this as I’ve been looking ahead to the readings for the First Sunday after Christmas, in particular Luke 2:22-40. Here is where we find Simeon. Simeon had been told by God he would see the Savior, and finally that promise has come to pass. Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the temple to consecrate Him according to the law. God fulfills His promise to Simeon. Simeon holds Jesus in his arms and knows He is the one who will bring salvation to the world. Simeon declares that he has seen God’s salvation with his own eyes.
Simeon’s words are remarkable on a number of levels. For now I want to consider why the early church thought it appropriate to include them in the divine service. We find the Nunc Dimittis, the Song of Simeon, immediately following Communion. I find most Christians don’t give the placement much thought, but it truly is profound. If we confess Christ’s own promise to be present among us in the bread and wine of the sacrament, not just in a spiritual sense, but in a physical, fleshly sense, the Simeon’s words are truly ours as well. We have seen God’s salvation with our own eyes. We, too, have held God in the flesh in our own hands. We have seen that promise of salvation fulfilled in our midst and now we sing our thanks to God for doing what He promised.
This gives a new character to the divine service. Christ did come to earth once. Christ will come again. Yet, at the same time, Christ comes to us every Sunday. He is there every time the church heeds His invitation to His table to share that joyous meal with Him. Normally when we think of the sacraments, we think about them in connection to Good Friday and Easter, to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Both sacraments are discussed in connection to those events repeatedly. But again, at the same time, they are also here in connection with His incarnation. God was not incarnate in broken, sinful flesh, but perfect and sinless flesh. His baptism was not for His righteousness, but for yours. In baptism, He takes on your sinful life and gives you His perfect one. Communion is God in the flesh in the midst of His people. The same God who declared, “I am with you always,” didn’t say this in a trite, Hallmark card sense, but to convey the reality that He truly is here. He ascended and yet He never left.
The readings for the beginning of Advent often draw on the Palm Sunday texts and the ideas related to it. The King is coming. Just prior to Communion, we have the Lord’s Prayer. As I said previously, we pray for the kingdom and God responds to our prayer by sending the kingdom. He does this by sending the King. So in truth, everything before Communion in the divine service is a tiny Advent. We prepare for Christ’s arrival. We look ahead in eager expectation of that time when we will gather around and see our salvation in the face of our present and incarnate Savior. When that time is passed, we sing God’s praises, for we have seen that salvation with our own eyes. Communion becomes Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter all rolled into one and we have the privilege of celebrating it every Sunday.