Note from CM: Over at Christianity Today you’ll find an article by Courtney Ellis entitled, “The Case for an Early Christmas.” In it she tries to strike a balance between marking Advent and including some celebration of Christmas ahead of Christmastide itself. I recommend you take a look at it. It brought to mind this piece from last year.
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Another Look: 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.
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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.”
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.
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Photo by Gerard Stolk at Flickr. Creative Commons License