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Confessions of a Recovering Advent Purist

With this Sunday starting the four-week season in the church year called Advent, I've been giving a lot of thought to the way we (in the church) prepare for Christmas during Advent. 

The season of Advent is meant to help us joyfully anticipate (but not prematurely celebrate) Christmas.

Each word (joyfully…anticipate…Christmas) is important.

So at the Falls Church Episcopal, beginning this Sunday, and over the first three weeks of Advent, Rev. Cathy and I will be doing a bit of a three-part sermon series, unpacking each of those three words a bit.

(And assuming we can get the logistics worked out, I also hope to launch a 25-day email devotional journey called “Joyful Anticipation of Christmas,” which will allow anyone who wishes to subscribe to a daily email and embark, with others, on a 25-day email devotional journey,  helping you to make your Advent and Christmas all the more meaningful. Stay tuned about that.) 

I’ll say more about the word “joyfully” below, but let’s remember the purpose of Advent is to help us anticipate Christmas.

Advent is a season of anticipation…a season of sharing, symbolically, pregnant Mary’s expectant waiting.

In that sense, Advent is not a season of prematurely celebrating Christmas. We’re waiting…anticipating…counting the days…

However, where I differ from some people who are more of Advent purists (and, to be honest, where I differ from my own former "Advent-purist-self") is this: 

What we anticipate during Advent is Christmas: the “first coming,” – the incarnation of Jesus, and decidedly not (as some of the lessons appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary would have us concentrate on) the second coming, or return, of Christ.

So, as a kind of “confessions of a recovering Advent Purist,” here is my rationale for making Advent a season of anticipating Christmas (the first coming of Jesus) and not the end-time apocalypse (the second coming of Jesus) -- 

  1. While emphasizing the second coming might have been appropriate in an age of Christendom, when preachers could take for granted that the vast majority of the public tied the holiday called “Christmas” to the holy day of the birth of Jesus, that is no longer the case.  Now days, at least in the Northern Virginia region culture, preachers/churches have enough of a challenge tying what the wider culture celebrates as “the holidays” to the specific Christian holy day called “Christmas,” not to mention the challenge of reminding people (or informing them!) that the day called “Christmas” actually has religious roots/celebrates the birth of Jesus (i.e., is not just about Santa and gifts). 
  2. It seems dowdy…frumpy…hopelessly out of touch with the people who are in our pews Sunday after Sunday to be crossing our arms and insisting on not hearing, in church (during the sermons at least), those wonderful pre-birth stories about Elizabeth’s and Mary’s pregnancies, Joseph’s doubts, the journey to Bethlehem, etc., and to insist on not signing “Christmas-anticipation” music in church until after the 25th of December, only allowing ourselves to pull these remarkable, powerful stories and hymns out of deep storage at the exact time when most of our supposedly less-enlightened congregation is sick to death of them, because they’ve been hearing them everywhere else. Since Halloween.  
  3. Why, I’ve often wondered, is it that some churches, insisting as they do on a Pharisee-like strict observation of Advent, are the only people -- as Christians – NOT talking about Christmas and singing Christmas hymns, at the exact time when we have the culture’s fullest attention, and only allowing ourselves to tell these stories and sing these hymns after they’ve moved on?

Which brings us to the first part:


Advent should be a time that joyfully anticipates Christmas.

My primary and most serious objection to thinking of Advent as a “mini-Lent,” penitential time is a theological objection: namely, that approach to Advent is Biblically and theologically inconsistent with the day it supposedly prepares us for: 

the Incarnation. Christmas.

As the Proper Preface (the brief seaonally-adjusted prayer said in the midst of the prayer of Great Thanksgiving when we bless the bread and wine) says during Advent: one of the consequences of Jesus coming the first time (that first Christmas) is that "when he shall come again," "we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing."   

In other words, even Jesus' second coming -- even the final judgment, were it really appropriate to concentrate on that during Advent -- is supposed to be, for us, NOT an occassion of shame or fear, but an occassion of rejoicing.  

How much more, then, is our anticipation of Christmas to be an occassion of joy. 

So again, I think we need to be reminded:

Jesus’ incarnation is announced in the Bible as “Good tidings of great joy.”

That is first thing that is said in the angelic announcement.

As the author Steve Backlund writes, 

 “The angel did not say, ‘I bring you news of a teaching that I hope you can follow,’ or ‘I bring you news that Jesus is coming; and boy, is He mad!’ but no, the message was, ‘It's time to celebrate! God is doing what you couldn't. He is making a way where there was no way. You are being saved from the curse, rejection, shame, punishment, poverty, sickness; and from performance-based living. The door is being opened to eternal life; intimacy with the Father, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and so much more. It is incredible, joyous news!’”

 That is the message of Christmas.

So again, while waiting and watching and anticipating…while avoiding the overt celebration of Christmas and certainly while doing what we can to resist the consumer-orgy-nature of the way our popular culture observes Christmas, what we’ll be doing at the Falls Church Episcopal during Advent is



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