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
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
for you have hidden your
face from us
and have given us over to our
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
The Infinite become a finite
Nothing can save us that is
We who must die demand a
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
Dark and cheerless is the morn,
Unaccompanied by thee…
o’er the shades of night:
from on high, be near:
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
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)
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
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
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.
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.