December 18, 2018

Another Look: The Advent Question

Levavi. Photo by Gerard Stolk

Note from CM: Over at Christianity Today you’ll find an article by Courtney Ellis entitled, “The Case for an Early Christmas.” In it she tries to strike a balance between marking Advent and including some celebration of Christmas ahead of Christmastide itself. I recommend you take a look at it. It brought to mind this piece from last year.

• • •

Another Look: The Advent Question

Therefore we believe, teach, and confess that the congregation of God of every place and every time has, according to its circumstances, the good right, power, and authority [in matters truly adiaphora] to change, to diminish, and to increase them, without thoughtlessness and offense, in an orderly and becoming way, as at any time it may be regarded most profitable, most beneficial, and best for [preserving] good order, [maintaining] Christian discipline [and for eujtaxiva (i.e. good order) worthy of the profession of the Gospel], and the edification of the Church.

The Book of Concord

• • •

Now here’s a question I never faced in my evangelical days:

How much Christmas should be allowed during Advent?

I remember once watching a dramatic show about life in post-WWII America. A certain episode took place during the Christmas season. One character, an aristocratic woman, expressed how appalled she was that stores were decorated for Christmas the week before the holiday! And that people were buying and putting up Christmas trees before Christmas Eve! Horrors! How gauche!

The great capitalistic industrial-consumer complex has certainly changed all of that. Many retailers depend upon Christmas sales to survive. They must plan early in the year and receive shipments in the middle of the year, start decorating in early autumn, and essentially leap-frog Halloween and Thanksgiving right into the marketing of Christmas gifts. I’ve notice this year in particular that “Black Friday” has been lengthened into “Black November,” then stretching into “Black December.” My email inbox is filled with the best sales ever each and every day and will until Christmas Day itself, only then to be bombarded by the after-Christmas sales.

That has been the engine, but people have certainly gone along with it willingly, even enthusiastically. So have most societal institutions, including churches. December is all Christmas all the time.

In an effort to combat this, some church traditions, especially those deeply rooted in history and tradition, have made an attempt to emphasize Advent. Evangelical churches have started adding certain Advent observances too, in an effort to “keep Christ in Christmas.”

Cue an article at Crux, a Roman Catholic site: “Catholic liturgies avoid Christmas decorations, carols in Advent.”

During the weeks before Christmas, Catholic churches stand out for what they are missing.

Unlike stores, malls, public buildings and homes that start gearing up for Christmas at least by Thanksgiving, churches appear almost stark save for Advent wreaths and maybe some greenery or white lights.

“The chance for us to be a little out of sync or a little countercultural is not a bad thing,” said Paulist Father Larry Rice, director of the University Catholic Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

By the same token, he is not about to completely avoid listening to Christmas music until Dec. 24 either. The key is to experience that “being out of sync feeling in a way that is helpful and teaches us something about our faith,” he told Catholic News Service.

Others find with the frenetic pace of the Christmas season it is calming to go into an undecorated church and sing more somber hymns like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” But that shouldn’t be the only draw, noted Jesuit Father Bruce Morrill, who is the Edward A. Malloy professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee.

He said the dissonance between how the church and society at large celebrate Christmas is that the church celebration begins, not ends, Dec. 25. The shopping season and Christian church calendar overlap, but don’t connect, he added.

And even though Catholic churches – in liturgies at least – steer clear of Christmas carols during Advent and keep their decorations to a minimum, Morrill said he isn’t about to advise Catholic families to do the same.

“It’s hard to tell people what to do with their rituals and symbols,” he said, adding, “that horse is out of the barn.”

I find this counsel to be sane and balanced. I know of churches and ministers who allow no Christmas songs to be sung during worship in Advent, who permit only minimal decorations, and will not have Christmas programs during Advent. They make this near to an article of faith, insisting that the church must be countercultural, that most Christmas customs have nothing to do with the gospel or Jesus, and that Christians who participate in them are distracted from honoring Christ aright and walking properly within good church discipline.

Funnily enough, I have heard this primarily in Lutheran circles, whereas the article above comes from the Catholics. Seems as though the shoe is on the other foot these days. The quote at the start of this post represents a hallmark of Lutheran teaching down through the centuries — certain practices and matters are adiaphora — not essential to the core message of the faith, and may be permitted or tolerated as long as things don’t get out of hand.

Certainly I could understand if someone would argue that this is exactly the situation in which we find ourselves. Things have gotten so far out of hand that we must double down on our Advent discipline in order to make a clear statement about what this season is meant to signify.

However, I think the folks in the article strike a good balance, recognizing that we are members of our communities as well as parishioners in our churches. Let our churches be as strict within their programs as they feel they must, but don’t place burdens on people and their families as they live among their neighbors.

As for me personally, I think a certain amount of “Christmas” in Advent can help increase expectation and warm people’s hearts. Even in congregational worship. I don’t disallow singing of Christmas songs, though I try to choose them carefully in an effort to build toward Christmas Day. We “hang the greens” early in Advent as visual signs on the pathway to Bethlehem. Sermons are from the lectionary, and I make an effort to stay true to its Advent intent.

And, apart from my preaching, I leave people alone to mark the season as they see fit. I trust that the love in our faith community, good teaching, and our gathered worship will help people take both Advent and Christmas seriously.

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Photo by Gerard Stolk at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Comments

  1. People in our Lutheran congregation want Christmas carols in Advent because then they get to sing them together in church more than the brief period of Christmas liturgical season permits. After all, Christmas is only 12 days, while Advent includes four Sundays. Our congregation might be in church together for as little as two days during the Christmas season, when Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday or Monday; usually it’s only three days, Christmas Eve and two Sundays (we don’t have a Christmas Day service, unless Christmas Day is a Sunday). As a result, the pastor allows the inclusion of one Christmas carol/hymn during each Advent Sunday service. It’s a small price for keeping the peace, as the fans for more Christmas carol singing are always a lot more vocal and numerous than the ones that prefer liturgical correctness (you could probably count the liturgically correct group on one hand, and with fewer than five fingers, in our congregation).

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      Go the other direction. A lot of hymns that we think of as Christmas hymns can just as easily–and in some cases positively ought to be–understood as Epiphany hymns. We Three Kings of Orient Are is an obvious example.

      • Yeah, I think my wife, who is music director and makes the initial choice of hymns for each Sunday (but can be overruled by the senior pastor [or the interim we have at the moment]) does that in some cases. For her part, my wife loves Advent hymns, ruing that we only have a few Sundays a year to sing them, and dislikes having to replace them with Christmas hymns/carols (though she loves Christmas music too, and could listen to it all year long!).

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        In Liturgical Calendars, Christmas Season extends twelve days to Epiphany.

  2. Steve Newell says:

    The hymns of Christmas are fun to sing. The lyrics are uplifting and the music is easy to remember.

    The hymns of Advent are not as much fun to sing. The lyrics are focused on our sin and the need for a savior and many times, the music is in a minor key. Many hymns refer to John the Baptizer.

    Outside of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, must Christians cannot name two or three Advent hymns.

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      Wachet Auf.

    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      Cheerful Advent hymns with good tunes:

      Lo he comes with clouds descending
      The Angel Gabriel from heaven came
      Hills of the North rejoice
      Come O long expected Jesus
      Hark the glad sound the Saviour comes
      The race which long in darkness pined
      Thou whose almighty Word, chaos and darkness heard

      There are loads!

    • Charles Wesley’s “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”.

  3. Richard Hershberger says:

    Fair warning, Mike: You’ve touched a nerve here.

    There are two Christmases: Christian Christmas and secular Christmas. Christian Christmas is the twelve days beginning on December 25, celebrating the birth of our Savior. Secular Christmas is a season of indeterminate length beginning sometime in November (if we are lucky), climaxing on the morning of December 25. Secular Christmas celebrates consumerism and wretched excess in general.

    Secular Christmas gets a lot more attention, even among Christians. After all, it comes first, it lasts a lot longer, and it has the full force of capitalist culture and the mass media behind it. It is ubiquitous. You can’t avoid it, short of moving to a cabin in Idaho. And frankly, by December 25, we adults are pretty much sick and tired of it, and ready to get on with our lives. The tree has been taking up space in the living room for weeks, and, if a real tree, is looking pretty tired at that point. The other eleven days are hopelessly anticlimactic.

    This push to move Christian Christmas early is, as I see it, an implicit surrender to secular Christmas, hoping to negotiate the best terms possible. Secular Christmas is so dominant that the idea of Christmas *after* December 25 seems weird. We need to explain that the twelve days of Christmas in the song begin, not end, on December 25. And since we are sick of it by December 25, the move earlier is an attempt to get in on the action when it still feels fresh, and maybe get a bit of messaging in while people are still paying attention.

    The problem with early Christian Christmas is that you can’t do Christmas and Advent at the same time. That is like signing up for a Lamaze class while in the delivery room. Do we give up on Advent entirely? Or does it get pushed earlier, too? How far do we go? Christ the King is gone from the get-go. Pretty soon we will be skipping All Saints.

    For what? Christian Christmas can never hope to compete in popular culture with secular Christmas. We don’t have the marketing resources. This is one of the many problems with the culture war fight over “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays.” The best imaginable outcome of a total victory in this fight is a token nod to Christian Christmas amid the heart-felt celebration of consumerism. This is not a win.

    This is why I embrace the differences between the two Christmases. The more we can keep Christian Christmas distinct from secular Christmas, the greater chance it has of surviving intact as more than a historical footnote explaining why there is a tree in the shopping mall.

    Not to be a total Scrooge, if the congregation wants to sing Christmas carols early, hold a group sing. Make it a potluck, if it is that sort of church. Hold it in the sanctuary, if that is the best space for it. (If you are having a potluck, and if you are holding it in the sanctuary because that is where the organ is, I might even join you. I make an excellent carrot cake, if you aren’t already full up on deserts.) My church is the de facto German church in Baltimore, even for those Germans who rarely darken a church door. This is what we do every year: http://www.zionbaltimore.org/event/weihnachtssingen-0

    Oh, and adiaphora? Really? Adiaphora is a discussion–and a very useful one at that–of what is and is not essential. Back in the day, they would say essential to salvation. Some still would. I don’t, but I am a notorious heretic. But in any case, not even the strictest liturgist has ever suggested that you might arrive at the pearly gates, only to have Saint Peter send you to that other place because you sang Hark The Herald Angels Came in Advent. Of course this is adiaphora. But pointing out that we can do something without risk to our immortal souls is not an argument one way or the other about whether it is a good idea. Go down that road and you risk putting mayonnaise on hamburgers while rooting for the Dallas Cowboys.

    • There are not enough people in my congregation who feel this way to even form a group to fight to make the two Christmases separate; the best case scenario is holding the ground that exists now, which does not keep them completely separate. And truthfully, I don’t feel strongly enough about it to be a one-man-army. Sorry, Richard, I’m not enlisting in the war to protect, or regain, Christian Christmas, or keep Christmas out of Advent. Good luck; I hope you have like-minded fellow parishoners, otherwise it will get pretty lonely.

      • Richard Hershberger says:

        My church is very old school German Lutheran. The tree, which in the German tradition is part of Christian Christmas, goes up on the convenient Saturday closest to Christmas, but isn’t decorated or have the lights turned on until the Christmas Eve service (which, should Christmas fall on a Monday, is distinct from the Advent IV service of that morning). Advent is not some new discovery for us, to be figured out. It is in our bones. I have a much bigger fight with my family. My wife was raised Catholic and she and the kids go to the local Methodist church (which has a fantastic children’s program). She is mystified by my refusal to put the tree up early, like normal people. I think that much of the problem is that while she understands my distinction between Christian Christmas and secular Christmas, she thinks of the tree as part of secular Christmas. It’s a German thing, including the Pennsylvania Germans who were my ancestors.

        • I think your position is entirely reasonable in your community.

        • My parish has long German roots in Lancaster County, PA, but it started as a shared German Lutheran and German Reformed church building, and since then there has been an influx of members who were formerly from Mennonite, Amish, and Church of Brethren churches into the remaining Lutheran parish. That probably accounts for much of the difference in attitude toward this and other matters liturgical, and even theological.

  4. Oh how I wish our little Lutheran parish in Alabama could manage Wachet Auf! und Wie Schon Leuchtet!
    1st Sunday of Advent…purple and blue paraments are up with blue vestments, candle 1 of the advent wreath lighted and blessed. Advent hymns appropriate to the readings are sung.
    2nd Sunday…candle 2 lighted and blessed, appropriate hymns.
    3rd Sunday…Gaudete Sunday, rose candle lighted and blessed, appropriate Advent hymns, Christmas tree is up but not decorated or lighted.
    4th Sunday, candle 4 lighted and blessed. Appropriate Advent hymns. A few poinsettias are in place. At the end of the Liturgy, before the final blessing of the people, the Christmas tree sans decorations is blessed and lighted. O Tannenbaum is sung. The recessional hymn is Joy to the World. During coffee hour, the tree and church are decorated.
    Parishioners with liturgical backgrounds tend to love the formula. Those from American Evangelical backgrounds are a little more mixed but with time and explanation, tend to come around.

    • Christiane says:

      ah, yes, the need for ‘Gaudete’ Sunday in the midst of Advent . . . . so important!

      but why? because Advent is after all a ‘waiting in joyful hope’

      here is something to think about:
      “Feeling sorry, acknowledging guilt, and prolonging regret may be components of the human condition, but they are not what Jesus means by repentance. Repentance is the response to grace that overcomes the past and opens out to a new future. Repentance distinguishes Christian life as one of struggle and conversion and pervades it, not with remorse, but with hope. The message of Jesus is not “Repent,” but “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near.”
      (John Shea)

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    That has been the engine, but people have certainly gone along with it willingly, even enthusiastically. So have most societal institutions, including churches. December is all Christmas all the time.

    I’m half-expecting to walk into a store on December 26 and be assaulted by “ONLY 364 SHOPPING DAYS TIL XMAS!!!!!”

    Cue an article at Crux, a Roman Catholic site: “Catholic liturgies avoid Christmas decorations, carols in Advent.”

    That’s because in the Western Liturgical Calendar, Christmas season BEGINS on December 25 and continues to Twelfth Night. THAT’s when the decorations and carols go. Makes a lot more sense than the way we do it — Advent gives you a whole month of resting up and prepping for a Twelve-Day Party.

    “HO! HO! HO! MERRY BURNOUT!”

    • In the Catholic parishes I’ve visited during Advent, I see what look like Christmas trees already up. I realize that they may be decorated in Advent motifs, but when I was a kid no trees were put up in Catholic parishes until Christmas Eve. Isn’t this a concession to secular Christmas, excused with a recently improvised religious rationale?

      • Perhaps they are Chrismon trees (filled with Christian monograms — symbols), or as in our Episcopal church, undecorated trees.

        • Perhaps, but when I was a kid growing up in the Catholic Church, there were no trees until Christmas season proper. I don’t see how this isn’t a concession to the change in Christmas’s timing that secular society has wrought.

  6. As much as I would love to go back to old traditions of Advent, it is impossible as we are expected to attend business Christmas parties, children’s concerts and many other events that precede the actual Christmas celebration. I very much try to keep my advent focus by not buying into the consumerism. We have cut down our gift buying to minimum and choose to contribute to the various community endeavors to help the poor, homeless, and marginalized.

    Because I live in Northern Canada where we only see 6 hours of day light this time of year I welcome the lit up houses and trees because I know the one small point of light will expel the darkness.

    Our church is adopting more and more liturgical elements as we come to understand the value of them including Advent but the strict austerity of the traditions mentioned in this post would be very difficult to implement. I do believe that a better understanding of Advent would change our focus from much of the Christmas celebration that has gone off the rails here in the west.

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      This is why I maintain a clear distinction between Christian Christmas and secular Christmas. A business Christmas party is a secular Christmas event. Its connection with Christian Christmas is so tenuous as to be irrelevant.

    • Christiane says:

      Hello Judy,
      “Because I live in Northern Canada where we only see 6 hours of day light this time of year I welcome the lit up houses and trees because I know the one small point of light will expel the darkness.”

      yes, Advent has to do with the Coming of the Light . . . with the light ‘increasing’ after the Winter Solstice

      as John the Baptist said about Christ the Light of the world: “He must increase . . . ”

      it is very meaningful that the Church chose this time of year for the celebration of the increasing sunlight each day going forward after the ‘darkest’ night of the year, the winter solstice . . .

  7. Burro (Mule) says:

    A shoutout to my coreligionists who celebrate the fixed feasts according to the Julian calendar, which is most of them. I may end up joining them. For them, the contrast between Christian Christmas and Secular Christmas must be wide indeed.

    I get a taste of it four out of five years when there is a difference between the Western Easter and ‘Real’ Easter. I love wishing my Baptist friends a Happy Catholic Easter. I know, I know.

  8. Christiane says:

    I think we DO have a ‘growing’ sense of Christmas during ‘Advent’ . . . . it has to do with ‘the coming of the Light’.
    It’s the reason the number of Advent candles that are lit continue to increase as you go towards Christmas Day, then the whole wreath is glowing with all candles lit

    In the Holy Gospel of St. John, we find the words of St. John the Baptist, these:

    “28 Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him.”
    and
    “30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

    If we look at the words ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’, we have a clue as to why the Advent and Christmas seasons are set by the Church at the time of the winter solstice, when the darkness is at its greatest on the Northern Hemisphere:

    AND we have a clue as to why the Church celebrates the birth of St. John the Baptist at the time of the summer solstice when the daylight is at its greatest and the light begins to decrease, day by day, until the time of the winter solstice (Northern Hemisphere): the feast day of St. John the Baptist is on June 24th, at the week of the beginning of the summer solstice.

    If we want to understand what ‘ADVENT’ celebrates, we have to understand a bit about WHY the Church placed Christ’s feast day at the time of the Winter Solstice, when at the darkest time of the year, the light of the sun began to increase

    If we want to understand the great humility of St. John the Baptist as it is celebrated in the Church on his feast day, we have to realize also that the celebration of that humility ‘I must decrease’ begins at the time of the Summer Solstice, from which each day going forward, the light of the sun slowly begins to ‘decrease’

    It’s about the LIGHT . . . Christ as the ‘Light of the world’

    • Yes, that makes sense to me. Advent is oriented toward Christmas, and the Parousia, as the windows through which we espy the One Light that shines in the darkness, and that overcomes the darkness. We are never left without this Light, though we may be blind, or blinded, to it.

  9. OMG I knew it. I did a search for “War on Advent” and got hundreds of hits.

  10. I guess I’m a church mutt or whore depending how you look at it. . I love the RRC for the Advent season and go mainly during Advent because of the hauntingly beautiful O Come O come Emanuel. Then off to EO for holy week and Evangelicalism for the mens’s group and bible study. Picking the best from all traditions and at home to none. Lonely and free at the same time