What is happening to Advent?

Thursday, December 3, 2015

For most of my life, I have held strongly to the Episcopal Church because all my thinking is shaped by the calendar of seasons  and their importance. Advent, in particular, has always gripped my imagination. Even when I was a child it was clear to me that those purple hangings (now more often Sarum blue, equally if not more correct) pointed to something more than simply “getting ready for Christmas.” In fact, there was something about Advent that suggested a significance beyond even Christmas, something that was clearly related to our lives in this fallen world. Even as a child I knew this, in an unformed way. My perception of the high importance of Advent was heightened by my parents’ practice of doing no decorating whatsoever until Christmas Eve (you can imagine the bustle of getting it all ready on one day!). The Cowley Fathers in Cambridge, Massachusetts (an Episcopal/ Anglican order), observe Advent and celebrate Christmas in just this way–and the Twelve Days of Christmas are the celebration, not the days before the holy day.

For most of my life, the Episcopal Church has held to this rule of Advent. We have not sung carols until Christmas Eve. We haven’t decorated the church until Christmas Eve. We observe the solemn Biblical readings and recognize the role of fire-breathing John the Baptist for two Advent Sundays in a row. Most of us sing “Lo, he comes with clouds descending” on the first Sunday of Advent, and we read the Great Litany. Until 1979, the collect for the First Sunday of Advent was read on every single day during Advent including all four Advent Sundays. It reminded us of “the works of darkness,” and the solemnity of its language (based on Romans 13:11-14) made a great impression. These have been precious things to many Episcopalians.

In recent years, however, there has been a lot of slippage. Children’s Christmas pageants have usurped the Fourth Sunday of Advent in many parishes, and the emphasis now is on the Annunciation (that’s a relatively recent change in the lectionary–the Feast of the Annunciation is properly observed nine months before Christmas Day). Churches offer Christmas festivities earlier and earlier. More unfortunate than these manifestations, though, is the state of Advent preaching. Every year now, I get indignant emails from friends around the country complaining about the sentimental sermons they’ve just heard on the First Sunday of Advent. The theological rigor demanded by the lectionary and the hymns  is being bypassed.  Advent and Lent should be the seasons least affected by banality and sentimentality, but the severity and seriousness of Advent is being swallowed up in the glow of candlelight. The Advent wreath is a beautiful thing, and we’ve always had one at our house, but its meaning, too, is being shaped nowadays into a shallow message of love, joy, and peace, as if it had no more resonance than your typical commercial Christmas card.

In the years when I preached regularly, I began every Advent sermon with these words: “Advent begins in the dark.” Is that not particularly the case this year? We are all battling fear in a way that has not been true in America since World War II, and perhaps not even then, since that war was fought far away. Those two great Anglican poets of the 20th century, T. S. Eliot (in Murder in the Cathedral) and W. H. Auden (in For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio) evoked a sense of Advent as a time of foreboding. The ultimate hope-beyond-hope is always there, beyond and through the foreboding, but when the essence of the season is diluted by cheery, upbeat, inferior forms of hope, the Advent power of the ultimate promise of God scarcely registers.

As is well known, the church seasons unfold the story of Jesus Christ through birth (Christmas), baptism, public appearance, and ministry, culminating in the Transfiguration (Epiphany), the passion (Lent), the Last Supper (Maundy Thursday), the crucifixion (Good Friday), the resurrection (Easter), Ascension Day, and the gift of the Spirit (Pentecost). I remember being present long ago in a discussion group when it was asked, “What part of the story of Jesus Christ does Advent tell?”

Do you know the answer to that? Watch for my second Advent installment…

Collect for the First Sunday of Advent:

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

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