In response to some questions on Twitter, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts. I have been delighted and grateful to see that many people from various traditions are becoming interested in Advent. Like many people who have prized certain liturgical customs from childhood, I admit to being a bit possessive and protectionist when it comes to Advent. The ubiquitous use of Advent calendars and wreaths (both of very recent provenance) has hastened the process of commerce swallowing up the religious meaning of Advent, just as in recent decades the geniuses of the marketplace have taken over Easter to such a degree that it is really difficult to find any Easter cards with the message of the resurrection.
But I do believe in fighting back (also known as resisting) and, in the process, deepening one’s own personal and ecclesial connection to the ancient calendar of the church–and above all to the Story that it tells. There is much talk of “formation”; as a child I was “formed,” in part, by seeing the Kalendar (sic) of the church year, in the four colors, hanging in the church sacristy where my mother would go month after month, year after year, to do her altar guild duty. I had a comforting sense that the church lived by its own time and that this calendar of seasons, properly understood, was something I could hold on to for life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters from the Nazi prison are a particularly powerful example of the way that the seasons of the church year were part of his inmost orientation, keeping him connected: connected to his family who were observing the seasons with him in the Spirit even in his loneliness, connected to the greater church worldwide even in that world-historical realm of darkness, and above all connected to The Story. Therefore it seems to me to be a very hopeful thing that there is increased interest in observing the church calendar–provided that it is done seriously and not lightly, detached from ancient and biblical tradition.
So what is an individual Christian, a family, a music director, or a pastor to do when trying to keep Advent in the midst of the 3-month carnival of commercial Christmas? One way to do it is to be intentionally double-minded, enjoying (up to a point) the Christmas frenzy but drawing a mental circle around your own church and your home. That’s what I’ve done for years. A second way of being double-minded is to think one way about your home and another way about your “worship space” (a poor way to identify it) or church. The one thing that a liturgically-minded Christian will NOT want to do is to have the church jump the gun—which, alas, is exactly what many Episcopal churches are doing nowadays. Many churches, including leading ones like St Thomas Fifth Avenue and the Washington Cathedral, put up greens in the church during Advent but do not add anything red or gold until Christmas Eve. That’s an acceptable compromise, I think. It’s instructive to visitors on Fifth Avenue to see the church largely undecorated until nearly Christmas Eve.
Advent begins in the dark. Understanding Advent begins with verses like this:
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins.
The significance of the birth of Jesus Christ will forever elude us if we are unable to take an inventory of the gravity of the human condition. Advent is designed to help us acknowledge the pervasive presence of the power of sin and death. Christmas is not some kind of “triumph of the human spirit.” It is an invasion of the irresistible grace of God which is never predictable, never deserved, and always arrives unexpected.
The counter-cultural nature of Advent, therefore, cuts across all the untruths and deceptions that surround our cultural Christmas. Observing the season is the least we can do to acknowledge that everything is not always going to be “merry and bright,” that Christmas is not “the most wonderful time in the year” for most people, that “silver bells” are not going to produce “smile after smile” in the city streets. No sentimental notion of an imaginary moonlit Bethlehem can dispel the darkness of anger, violence, poverty, oppression, lies, and despair that is the true condition of most of our world. “We who must die demand a miracle,” wrote W. H. Auden in the Advent section of his Christmas Oratorio; there is no miracle without the arrival of the impossible in the midst of Sin and Death.
We who must die demand a miracle. How could the Eternal do a temporal act, The Infinite become a finite fact? Nothing can save us that is possible: We who must die demand a miracle.
This introduction is only a brief attempt to hint at the themes and mood of Advent. We Christians need to make sure that we are teaching and living by that during this season, not rushing into Christmas without identifying the perils of our condition as “the people that walk in darkness in a land of deep darkness” (Isaiah 9:2). The season begins in the dark, but looks toward the light-in-darkness which is “Christ the true, the Only Light—
Dark and cheerless is the morn,
Unaccompanied by thee…
Sun of Righteousness, arise,
Triumph o’er the shades of night:
Day-spring from on high, be near:
Day-star, in my heart appear.
(All of this and a great deal more can be found in my book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ)
Practical suggestions for observing Advent
Some of the following ideas will work for individuals and families, others for designers of liturgies. Many of them have worked for our family; others are common practice in Episcopal churches.
· When you decide to put out a wreath, use a purple ribbon during Advent. Change to red on Christmas Eve. That can be part of the Christmas Eve excitement for children. (Actually, “Sarum blue” is the older color for Advent, and some Episcopal churches use it now. Purple came in with the Victorians. I still use purple.)
· Follow the Moravian custom of lighted candles in every window during Advent, beginning with the First Sunday of Advent. It’s easy with those automatic on-at-dusk-off-at-dawn candles, and a lot less expensive than putting lighted reindeer and inflatable Santa Clauses outside! (This year, the First Sunday of Advent is December 1, but that is rarely the case.)
· By all means have an Advent wreath, even though it’s not an ancient custom. A good place is on the table where your family eats dinner. Use prayers from a liturgical or biblical source focusing on the prophetic messages, so as not to rush to the Christmas story too soon. Don’t worry about the lavender/pink candle—it celebrates a festival long since discontinued in the Roman Catholic church. Best to have all purple (or blue) candles.
· On Christmas Eve, light a large fat white candle in the middle of the wreath (I always make the wreath over with fresh greens in the last week) and have a prayer about the Nativity. I like to read the verses from “O little town of Bethlehem.” If you can sing them, all the better!
Learn (and teach your children) about the Great O’s of Advent. The ancient, classic Advent hymn, “O come, O come Emmanuel” is just marvelous for the season and it’s well known enough to be familiar. Here’s a good brief introduction to the Great O’s (I like the description of Christians as “people of contradiction”) https://ascensionnyc.org/2011/12/the-great-os-of-advent/
· Don’t decorate your whole house all at one time. Save the specifically Christmas decorations for the last days of the Advent season. In the early weeks, put out evergreens and berries, pictures of the Annunciation, some of the more restrained seasonal cards as they come in. (I admit to being a little sad that most Christmas cards nowadays are photos of beaming families in vacation settings instead of beautiful designs of the season.)
· Put up the tree as late as practically possible; we have been known to leave ours undecorated for a few days, which adds to the sense of anticipation. Save the red ribbons and scarlet poinsettias for Christmas Eve.
· Make up your mind to celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas. Teach your family that the first Day of Christmas is Christmas Day. Try to say “Christmas Day” and “Boxing Day” (if you’re an Anglophile) or St Stephen’s Day (aka Feast of Stephen as in “Good King Wenceslas”) to indicate that Christmas is many days, not just one. Since New Year’s Day is one week after Christmas Day, that makes it easier to keep up the celebratory mood at least till New Year’s Day. Plan to have people over during the Twelve Days, even if only for pizza.
· The 12th day of Christmas, Twelfth Night, can be a very enjoyable closer for the Christmas season. Look up Twelfth Night customs online. I know people who still honor the old custom by taking out their evergreens and having a bonfire on Twelfth Night (be sure to check with the local authorities!). My daughter tells me that at Virginia Beach the trees are taken out to help make dunes on the beach.
· At the close of the Christmas season, make a celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany on January 1. The Latino celebration of Three Kings Day is worthy of emulation. Children can get into this. Even the youngest child can understand the significance of presents given to baby Jesus. Don’t sing “We Three Kings” until Epiphany.
Speaking of singing:
There are many splendid Advent hymns that your congregation should know. The best resources are the Episcopal and Lutheran (ELCA) hymnals. Several of the best ones take their imagery from the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids in Matt 25:1-18, an classic Advent text if ever there was one. “Rejoice, rejoice believers, and let your lights appear” is one of these hymns, also the great Lutheran chorale “Wake, awake, for night is flying” with the Wachet Auf! (Wake up!) tune harmonized by J. S. Bach. Other hymns take their cue from John the Baptist, the premier figure of Advent (“on Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry,” “There’s a voice in the wilderness crying,” “What is the crying at Jordan?”). Still others are noteworthy for their notes of expectant joy, typically in Advent for a Lord of the cosmos rather than an individual savior (“Redeemer of the nations, come,” “Hark, a thrilling voice is sounding,” “Creator of the stars of night,” “Come thou long expected Jesus,” “The King shall come when morning dawns,” “Fling wide the door”). Many of these hymns are little known outside Episcopal and Lutheran circles, but that could change (note for instance how “O come Emmanuel” has gained popularity in recent decades). “Lo, he comes with clouds descending,” with text by Charles Wesley, is considered by significant numbers of hymn-lovers to be one of the best hymns—if not the best—ever written, especially when sung to the superb Helmsley tune. There is another, easier-to-sing but not as rousing, tune—St. Thomas—which I grew up with.
And speaking of music, my greatest sorrow is that I can no longer listen to music. My hearing loss has been accompanied by great distortion in what I hear, so my large collection of sacred music is useless to me now. But until a few years ago, my Advent days were full of depth and passion—there is a great deal of recorded Advent music. Many Anglican/Episcopal churches have recorded their Advent services of music. The one from the cathedral in Toronto is a particular favorite of mine.
Any number of acts of resistance can be added to this list. In recent years we have taken to giving contributions to charities for Christmas and signaling this during Advent. The New York Times’ Neediest Cases fund is a favorite of ours. Nicholas Kristof, the respected columnist who often praises the church for its works of charity, publishes a list every year. Children can be taught this from early childhood, saving up pennies. My granddaughter amazed me in her late 20s—last year—by contributing to the Neediest Cases and remembering how I taught her this when she was only seven.
To sum up, for now (this is a work in progress—I will be editing it and adding to it):
The double-mindedness of which I wrote earlier allows me to enjoy the decorations—however outrageous—in my neighborhood. They make my daily walks more fun. But I remember the excitement of being taken in the car (with my sister when she was old enough) by my parents on Christmas Eve—not before! There were only three sights to see in our little town in the 1940s: 1) “Miss Ella” Camp Ballard had a spotlight on her double doors with two wreaths; 2) Mrs. Olive Gadberry had a lighted Three Kings scrim on her porch; and 3) Mrs. Ruth “Boofie” Camp Campbell had a Santa complete with sleigh and reindeer on the tip-top of her 3-story Victorian mansion. That was quite enough excitement for the two little Parker girls on Christmas Eve—and then, when we were old enough, the “midnight service,” beginning at 11 PM, was the inaugural event of all that would comprise the Twelve Days of Christmas.
I can attest, from my deepest self, that when these sorts of commemorations are intentionally woven into the lives of families year after year, it makes an impression not easily erased. The point is not to be snooty and inflexible about Advent and Christmas observance (although I do plead guilty up to a point), but to turn our backs on the imperatives of the marketplace and share the joy of life grounded in a greater Truth than anything to be found in the commercial Christmas.