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Joyful Anticipation of Christmas

Two years ago, I ran across a column written by the Episcopal priest and columnist Tom Ehrich, having to do with Advent and Christmas. He wrote, in part:

Along about now, pulpits and church newsletters bristle with [complaining] about the culture's theft of Christmas.

Targets include the so-called "commercialization of Christmas," manic spending but hesitant pledging, bustling malls but empty pews, spotlights on Santa Claus but not on Jesus, and cultural shifts that we see as "taking Christ out of Christmas."

We'll even gripe about the people who finally do show up en masse on Christmas Eve and criticize them for not being there every Sunday… This annual [complaining] is a perfect expression of why many churches dwindle to irrelevance. This is "provider-driven" religion: blaming people for not wanting what we provide…

If people are hungry for food, why would we give them [empty] ritual? If people are hungry for meaning, why would we give them traditions inherited from former days? If people want to connect their lives with a living God -- which they do, whether we acknowledge it or not -- why would we condemn them for digging deep to buy gifts for their children or yearning for lost love?

If people want to sing Christmas carols because this is the best music we sing all year long, why would we force them to drone through Advent hymnody just because our church calendar doesn't say "Christmas" yet? Is there some virtue in denying people their legitimate needs? …

--##--

So, two years after reading this column, I’m even more convinced he’s on to something. Too many Episcopal churches take the customs and traditions of Advent more seriously than the hunger and needs of people; too many people take religion, and religious customs, more seriously than a personal relationship with God.

And that is part of the reason we at St. James’ have made some subtle changes to Advent and our Christmas preparations.

For example, during the four weeks of Advent, our preaching emphasizes not the “second coming,” end-time apocalyptic stories customarily associated with Advent, but -- imagine this! -- the wonderful stories in Luke and Matthew of the events leading up to Jesus’ birth that first Christmas: for example, this Sunday, the Annunciation story of Mary’s being visited by the angel Gabriel and her miraculous pregnancy; next Sunday, her visit to Elizabeth, where we hear the strong, poetic words of the Magnificat (“my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savoir”) and the Sunday after that, the poignant story of Joseph’s dilemma and faithfulness when he finds out Mary, his betrothed, is with child not-his-own.

And for example, while the vast majority of our music during Advent is from the section of the hymnal with the chapter heading “Advent,” we do not feel bound to “drone through Advent hymnody,” and feel free to use hymns such as Christina Rosetti’s “Love Came Down at Christmas” and the wonderfully Advent-appropriate “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” even though those hymns are found in the section of the hymnal with the chapter title “Christmas.”

But neither do we want to fall into the cultural habit of prematurely celebrating Christmas. We are in these weeks celebrating Advent, not Christmas.

In other words, we try to strike a balance in Advent by making Advent a season of “joyfully anticipating Christmas.”

On the one hand, we are joyful…we deliberately reject the dour, “mini-Lent” theology of Advent, and declare Christmas -- the first one and each one since -- to be an occasion of joy. The culture gets that right, even if it misses the underlying reason for the joy!

But, on the other hand, we don’t capitulate to the culture, either, and jump the gun on Christmas…we joyfully anticipate Christmas. We anticipate, as opposed to celebrate Christmas these weeks -- we count down the days, we prepare, we light our Advent wreath week by week…and in so doing, we deepen our appreciation of, and respect for, the holy day itself by delaying our celebrations until the actual day and season. (And Christmas is a season! Unlike our culture, we continue our celebration for twelve days, stretching that celebration right until the Burning of the Greens on January 6, Epiphany, instead of declaring an end to this wonderful, joyful holy day on December 26.)

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