The Fourth week of Advent

Monday, December 21, 2015

Yesterday, the fourth Sunday of Advent, the 11 AM service at St Thomas Fifth Avenue was, as usual, pretty much perfect (assuming you love the classic liturgy). There was nothing red in the church, only simple, classic greenery and the purple hangings. On the altar frontal, the great words, Adveniat regnum tuum appeared (“thy Kingdom come,” from the Lord’s Prayer); that is an eschatological, Advent-y prayer if ever there was one. The hymns and carols were tilted to the Annunciation, but that was fine, since that theme has within it the note of promise, waiting, and anticipation that are so central to the season.

Just one problem: “Joy to the world” at the end. “The Lord IS come.” Oh dear. Why? There are so many appropriate Advent hymns for the fourth Sunday. My copy of Hymnal Studies 5: A Liturgical Index to the Hymnal 1982 recommends for Advent IV a good many hymns, including for example “Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates,” “How bright appears the Morning Star,” “The King shall come when morning dawns,” “Hark! the glad sound! the Savior comes,” and a good many others taken not only from the Advent section but also from other parts of the hymnal. “Joy to the World” is not listed, nor is any other Christmas hymn.

Why is this important? (Most people couldn’t care less.) It’s important for several reasons.  The most obvious reason is that one gets the impression that the culture is forcing the church’s hand. The more we are like the culture, with its month-long Christmas frenzy, the less we are like the people of God. About ten years ago a woman whose husband had recently died unexpectedly at the age of 50 wrote to me about her love of Advent. “I like the darkness,” she said. She explained that the sense of something imminent but not yet here was appealing to her in her grief. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who obviously loved Advent, wrote similarly in his letters from prison.

Advent should be the pre-eminent time of the year for a fearless inventory of the darkness all around us. I jotted down a partial list, taken from this week’s news, on my St Thomas program: terrorist attacks, human trafficking, torture by Navy SEALS, the Syrian civil war, Boko Haram, child abuse, blatant discrimination against people of color in the construction unions, the deterioration of political discourse, extreme poverty, increase in homelessness, droughts all over the planet, and schisms in the churches. I get the impression (I could be wrong, of course) that few preachers referred to any of these things on the fourth Sunday of Advent. It’s as if the turn to Christmas was made two weeks ago. And if that’s so, it’s because of the pressure of the culture, not because of any profound liturgical rethinking.

I remember from my younger days in the church that every seven years, when the fourth Sunday of Advent coincided with Christmas Eve, there was a great scramble as the altar guild made the changeover between the morning service and the midnight service on the same day–bringing in the tree and the candles and the holly and the red ribbons in the space of a couple of hours. My mother said, “Christmas should come in a burst.” That made a great impression on me. On the other hand, maybe this is just nostalgia. Lincoln Kirstein, the founder of the New York City Ballet, is reported to have said, “Nostalgia is pure vanity.” Is that so? I can see some truth in that,  insofar as we tend to believe that our cherished illusions of the past are more important than other people’s search for the new. But on the other hand, not all memories are illusion. Some of them point to a greater truth. God does not owe us anything. There is no progression of history leading up to a well-earned incursion of grace. “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given” (Philips Brooks). Advent is a sort of great silence, symbolically–a silence representing all the times in human history when God has seemed to be absent. Advent is therefore a great darkness pierced only by the words of the prophets: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.” If we continue to allow this incomparable season to be chipped away, a precious part of our liturgical and theological heritage will be unknown to almost everyone.

(This is the third of three posts on the subject of Advent. For what it’s worth, I am hoping that I will be able to put together an Advent book next year.)

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