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 (beginning, in some instances, even before Halloween)? 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 own 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 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. In contrast, 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:
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.
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—
(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, or used to be. None of this is on the order of the laws of the Medes and the Persians, but observing Advent in a serious way really does create a sense of the importance and the deep joy of keeping the Christian calendar.
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.
I went through the Lutheran (ELCA) hymnal and found that they have more Advent hymns than the Episcopal hymnal, and some of them are as good as or better than ours! So there!
(Speaking of music, my greatest sorrow is that I can no longer listen to music. My hearing loss has been accompanied by shrieking 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 mercy, publishes a list of good charities 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.