December 15, 2017

The Advent Question

Der Fleck. Photo by Werner Langemeyer

The Advent Question

Therefore we believe, teach, and confess that the congregation of God of every place and every time has, according to its circumstances, the good right, power, and authority [in matters truly adiaphora] to change, to diminish, and to increase them, without thoughtlessness and offense, in an orderly and becoming way, as at any time it may be regarded most profitable, most beneficial, and best for [preserving] good order, [maintaining] Christian discipline [and for eujtaxiva (i.e. good order) worthy of the profession of the Gospel], and the edification of the Church.

The Book of Concord

• • •

Now here’s a question I never faced in my evangelical days:

How much Christmas should be allowed during Advent?

I remember once watching a dramatic show about life in post-WWII America. A certain episode took place during the Christmas season. One character, an aristocratic woman, expressed how appalled she was that stores were decorated for Christmas the week before the holiday! And that people were buying and putting up Christmas trees before Christmas Eve! Horrors! How gauche!

The great capitalistic industrial-consumer complex has certainly changed all of that. Many retailers depend upon Christmas sales to survive. They must plan early in the year and receive shipments in the middle of the year, start decorating in early autumn, and essentially leap-frog Halloween and Thanksgiving right into the marketing of Christmas gifts. I’ve notice this year in particular that “Black Friday” has been lengthened into “Black November,” then stretching into “Black December.” My email inbox is filled with the best sales ever each and every day and will until Christmas Day itself, only then to be bombarded by the after-Christmas sales.

That has been the engine, but people have certainly gone along with it willingly, even enthusiastically. So have most societal institutions, including churches. December is all Christmas all the time.

In an effort to combat this, some church traditions, especially those deeply rooted in history and tradition, have made an attempt to emphasize Advent. Evangelical churches have started adding certain Advent observances too, in an effort to “keep Christ in Christmas.”

Cue an article at Crux, a Roman Catholic site: “Catholic liturgies avoid Christmas decorations, carols in Advent.”

During the weeks before Christmas, Catholic churches stand out for what they are missing.

Unlike stores, malls, public buildings and homes that start gearing up for Christmas at least by Thanksgiving, churches appear almost stark save for Advent wreaths and maybe some greenery or white lights.

“The chance for us to be a little out of sync or a little countercultural is not a bad thing,” said Paulist Father Larry Rice, director of the University Catholic Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

By the same token, he is not about to completely avoid listening to Christmas music until Dec. 24 either. The key is to experience that “being out of sync feeling in a way that is helpful and teaches us something about our faith,” he told Catholic News Service.

Others find with the frenetic pace of the Christmas season it is calming to go into an undecorated church and sing more somber hymns like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” But that shouldn’t be the only draw, noted Jesuit Father Bruce Morrill, who is the Edward A. Malloy professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee.

He said the dissonance between how the church and society at large celebrate Christmas is that the church celebration begins, not ends, Dec. 25. The shopping season and Christian church calendar overlap, but don’t connect, he added.

And even though Catholic churches – in liturgies at least – steer clear of Christmas carols during Advent and keep their decorations to a minimum, Morrill said he isn’t about to advise Catholic families to do the same.

“It’s hard to tell people what to do with their rituals and symbols,” he said, adding, “that horse is out of the barn.”

I find this counsel to be sane and balanced. I know of churches and ministers who allow no Christmas songs to be sung during worship in Advent, who permit only minimal decorations, and will not have Christmas programs during Advent. They make this near to an article of faith, insisting that the church must be countercultural, that most Christmas customs have nothing to do with the gospel or Jesus, and that Christians who participate in them are distracted from honoring Christ aright and walking properly within good church discipline.

Funnily enough, I have heard this primarily in Lutheran circles, whereas the article above comes from the Catholics. Seems as though the shoe is on the other foot these days. The quote at the start of this post represents a hallmark of Lutheran teaching down through the centuries — certain practices and matters are adiaphora — not essential to the core message of the faith, and may be permitted or tolerated as long as things don’t get out of hand.

Certainly I could understand if someone would argue that this is exactly the situation in which we find ourselves. Things have gotten so far out of hand that we must double down on our Advent discipline in order to make a clear statement about what this season is meant to signify.

However, I think the folks in the article strike a good balance, recognizing that we are members of our communities as well as parishioners in our churches. Let our churches be as strict within their programs as they feel they must, but don’t place burdens on people and their families as they live among their neighbors.

As for me personally, I think a certain amount of “Christmas” in Advent can help increase expectation and warm people’s hearts. Even in congregational worship. I don’t disallow singing of Christmas songs, though I try to choose them carefully in an effort to build toward Christmas Day. We “hang the greens” early in Advent as visual signs on the pathway to Bethlehem. Sermons are from the lectionary, and I make an effort to stay true to its Advent intent.

And, apart from my preaching, I leave people alone to mark the season as they see fit. I trust that the love in our faith community, good teaching, and our gathered worship will help people take both Advent and Christmas seriously.

Comments

  1. Burro [Mule] says:

    It is because of this very absorption of Advent into Christmas that I find the Advent fast the most difficult of all the four fast seasons to keep. As an American, I am just not programmed for self-denial, contemplation, and repentance during late November and December.

    It could be such a blessing, such a blessing. Late November/Early December are filled with such significant Feasts and Saints Days; St Phillip, the Entrance of Our Lady into the Temple, St. Catherine, St Andrew, St. Nicholas, St. Ambrose, the Conception of Our Lady, St. Herman of Alaska, St. Lucy…

  2. In my particular Lutheran parish, the pastor allows one Christmas hymn each Sunday of Advent. His accommodation was at the request of the church laity, who feel that there is just not enough time to sing the wonderful Christmas hymns together during the short period of the actual Christmas liturgical season, when people are in church only a couple of times. After all, most churches don’t spend many of the twelve days of Christmas with each other in worship.

    Apart from that, I resist the should in the question, “How much Christmas should be allowed during Advent?”

  3. Also, some of the discussion we have had here about the appropriateness of Christian observance and participation in cultural Halloween seems germane to me with regard to observing Christmas during Advent, both in and out of church. How churlish and dour, how less than fully human, may we appear to our less religious neighbors if we fastidiously avoid Christmas in Advent for purely theological reasons? How unfriendly do we appear, how unwelcoming, how cult-like?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > How unfriendly do we appear, how unwelcoming, how cult-like?

      Very

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      …how less than fully human, may we appear to our less religious neighbors if we fastidiously avoid Christmas in Advent for purely theological reasons?

      They’ll just think you’re Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  4. senecagriggs says:

    I draw the line at Santa –
    If he shows up in the Narthex than I’m leaving – grin

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      There is a nearby front-yard nativity with Santa bowing before the manger baby … it is not clear if it is a tacky mash-up or a statement.

    • I was once visiting a small town in North Georgia and went into an antique shop. They had an eight inch tall figurine of St Nick, but with a midnight blue hooded long coat covered with stars and moons. It was beautiful but they wouldn’t sell it to me because they had a subscriber’s only buyer’s club. I bet not a single Christmas has gone by in 20 years that I haven’t thought about that figurine and regretted not getting it. But it occurs to me now that it has stayed with me in a way it never would have if I had bought it and subsequently gotten used to having it. Strange.

      God bless us everyone!.

  5. john barry says:

    I have read and agree that Charles Dickens was the “man who saved Christmas” in the secular society and made Christmas as we know it. The very essence of the power of love and sharing is as good a Christmas message that most secular people are going to get and I think Robert F. makes an excellent point. As in all things moderation is the key. If the Christmas carols are too early on the radio I found that my radios have an off button and a channel changer. One of my favorite parts of Christmas is the Christmas plays with children that are disappearing due to lack of children in church. We can control the amount of influence that the “world” has on our Christmas observance but all will be fine if we do like the over used, simple but all so true annual bumper sticker says “Keep Christmas in Christmas”. I guess that in reality we celebrate Christmas and Easter all year long, that are like love and marriage, cannot have one without the other.

  6. john barry says:

    “Keep Christ in Christmas”, have a chain going, cannot spell well, cannot type well, cannot proofread well and cannot think well.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I’ve noticed there hasn’t been an All Hands Emergency Mobilization for the War on Christmas this year. Not even the latest Starbucks cups have triggered the Culture Warriors this year.

  7. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    > Things have gotten so far out of hand that we must double down

    (a) does The Double Down **ever** work?
    (b) is it so far out of hand? Looking at a shopping mall – and the people self-selected to be rampaging around the shopping mall – is not looking at your neighborhood, city, or America. It is looking at people at the mall. That is likely not even ~20% of your neighborhood, and certainly not 20% of your city, or America [as that would be physically impossible].

    We should be wary of the fallacy concerning what-is-easy-to-see is not necessarily representational. We do not see [or notice] people just going about their usual business. We certainly do not see people sitting at home reading a book.

    For many many many people Christmas comes and goes without all that much fuss. Even with jammed airports and sold-out trains – that is not even close to a majority citizens [the system would grind to a near hopeless stop if it was].

    My advice to relax and enjoy the spectacle – it is not nearly as significant or deeply rooted as the cultural woe mongers would have us believe.

    > leave people alone to mark the season as they see fit

    This!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      > Things have gotten so far out of hand that we must double down
      (a) does The Double Down **ever** work?

      “And stop screaming. Nobody likes a religion with people screaming.”
      — Internet Monk, “I’m Weary of Weird Christians”(?)

  8. Now see if you folks were raised country Southern Baptist like I was you wouldn’t even know what Advent meant and you’d be shoppin’ and splurgin’ and cursin’ the War on Christmas like everyone else!

  9. –> “How much Christmas should be allowed during Advent?”

    I’m not sure I can answer that question, but I do know, regarding that blurb from the Book of Concord, as both a writer AND a reader, that sentence should be blown up and started over!

  10. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Cue an article at Crux, a Roman Catholic site: “Catholic liturgies avoid Christmas decorations, carols in Advent.”

    Because in liturgical churches, Advent is a preparation period FOR Christmas.

    Makes a lot more sense than the way we do XMAS! now. Instead of burning out with HO! HO! HO! MEERY XMAS!!! for a month, one day pigging out (and having to report for work the next day), we have an entire month to rest up and prep for a twelve-day blowout.

    • Christiane says:

      Advent is a very meaningful prep for Christmas, yes. . . . it calls forth the ancient prophecies from the OT and it build suspense and longing and anticipation for the coming of Christ . . . .

      there is a sadness and a beauty to Advent that I don’t find in those circles that have no provision for it . . . . and their ‘Christmas’ seems lacking in meaning much beyond celebrating ‘Jesus’ Birthday’

      • john barry says:

        Christiane, I think that those who do not follow the tradition of the beginning of the liturgical year but who do appreciate the tradition believe “Christmas” is a little more than the birthday of Jesus, I think in all Christian religions it is to celebrate Emmanuel , that God sent his Son so we have eternal salvation. While true it is the birthday of Jesus I just picture the pre school children at the play singing Happy Birthday Jesus. I do like the color purple as does Oprah

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Also, I like how the readings for Advent sound like they’re building up to Armageddon (End Time Prophecy), and then cycles to the Nativity for the liturgical year.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      One quote that sums up what Xmas has become for me for the past several years:

      “Hell has no torment worse than Constant Forced Cheerfulness.”
      — G.K.Chesterton, “Three Tools of Death” (Father Brown Mystery)

      At least Advent acknowledges the danger of burnout and depression.

  11. I found it a prescient point that Fr. Morrill said the horse was out of the barn as regards “symbol” and “ritual”, not shopping and frenzy. They are vastly different things and can be addressed very differently. One is born of need and the other of want.