I think the church has a responsibility to be counter-cultural. Someone needs to point out that, contrary to what Best Buy commercials teach, buying electronics is not the way to get people to love you. And someone -- it might as well be the church -- should point out that contrary to what Zales commercials teach, giving expensive jewelry on the morning of December 25th does not make up for one's being an emotionally distant jerk the other 364 days of the year.
But here's the thing: the danger the church runs into is coming across as grouchy spoil-sports. That's a huge irony, because the season of Advent SHOULD be a season of joyfully anticipating Christmas.
Unfortunately, though, it seldom is, at least not the way most Episcopal church's observe it.
I've come to believe that Advent -- at least the way it's customarily observed -- doesn't do a good job conveying joy, or anticipating Christmas. That's because we've inherited a dour "anticipation of the Second Coming," almost penitential season that is (ironically) completely out of whack with the holy day it supposedly prepares us for.
There's a brief little seasonally-adjusted prayer called a "proper preface" said during our celebration of communion. During the season of Advent, here's what it says. (The emphases are mine. Which is the whole point -- the emphases!)
It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, because you sent your beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs in him of everlasting life; that when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear REJOICE to behold his appearing.
In other words, because of God's "first coming" in Jesus (on that first Christmas), the "second coming" (and God's judgment) is not only NOT something that will be a source of shame or fear, but it is something we can REJOICE in.
The real purpose of Advent, I've come to believe, and want to share here again, is to help us joyfully anticipate Christmas.
Each of those three words - "joyfully," "anticipate," and "Christmas" are important.
I'll come back to "joyfully" in a minute. First let me say something about Advent being a season of anticipation...a season of sharing in pregnant-Mary's expectant waiting.
I am still very much on board with the idea that Advent is not a time to prematurely celebrate Christmas. Rather, the church invites us to wait...anticipate...to count the days. (Advent calendars and Advent wreathes are great for that.)
However, where I have changed my mind from my former "Advent-purist" self, and where I now differ from some of my friends and colleagues who remain Advent purists is this:
What the lessons and sermons during this season ought to anticipate is Christmas: the "first coming" or incarnation of Jesus, and not (as most of the lessons appointed in the Lectionary and as some Advent hymns would have us concentrate on) the second coming, or return, of Christ.
Emphasizing the "second coming" might have been appropriate in an age of Christendom, when people in the general culture had an understanding of Christianity. Now days, at least in the Northern Virginia region culture, preachers/churches have enough of a challenge attempting to tie 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" is about a celebration of the birth of Jesus (i.e., is not only about gifts).
Christians come across as dowdy...frumpy...hopelessly out of touch with the people who are in our pews Sunday after Sunday when we cross our arms and refuse to hear those wonderful stories leading up to the first Christmas: the stories about Elizabeth's and Mary's becoming pregnant, Joseph's doubts, and the journey to Bethlehem, to name three.
It strikes me as haughty to complain about hearing Christmas music before December 25, and only allow ourselves to pull these remarkable, powerful 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.
When we insist on the old, "mini-Lent" observation of Advent, we are the only people -- as Christians - who are NOT talking about Christmas and singing "Christmas" hymns* at the exact time when we have the culture's fullest attention. Combine that with the often-accompanying self-righteous attitude of "oh come on, it's not Christmas yet!" and we come across as little more than dour, frowning, spoil-sports.
And that is, at the very least, bad evangelism.
Which brings us to the first part: Joy.
I'm convinced that Advent should be a time that joyfully anticipates Christmas.
My primary and most serious objection to thinking of Advent as a "mini-Lent," or penitential time is a theological objection: namely, the customary approach to Advent is scripturally and theologically inconsistent with the day it supposedly prepares us for: the Incarnation.
You know, Christmas.
Again, as the proper preface says, 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, and I don't think it is) is supposed to be, for us, NOT an occasion of shame or fear, but an occasion of rejoicing.
How much more, then, should our anticipation of Christmas be an occasion of joy?
We need to be reminded that Jesus' incarnation is announced in the Bible as "Good news 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 the popular culture observes Christmas, what we'll be doing at The FallsChurch Episcopal during Advent is
*I'm adding here a footnote on "Christmas" hymns sung during Advent, because this seems to generate a large amount of angst among my fellow clergy/liturgy planners.
Some people balk at the idea of singing "Christmas" hymns during Advent. But if you take a close look at the hymn texts – what is actually being said, theologically in the words -- you could make the argument that the assignment of a hymn to the "Advent" or "Christmas" section of the hymnal may well have been somewhat arbitrary.
Namely, some hymns found in the "Advent" section of the 1982 Hymnal mention the birth of Jesus as an accomplished historical fact, already having happened. For example, in Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, (hymn 66), we proclaim,
Born thy people to deliver,born a child, and yet a king,born to reign in us for ever,now thy gracious kingdom bring.
"Born"? "Now"? Whoa, isn't that a Christmas hymn?!?
And at the same time, some of the hymns that happen to be in the "Christmas" section have more of the traditional "Advent" tone of penitence, anticipation -- and even the second coming. For example, in “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (hymn 89) we sing,
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
and warring humankind hears not
the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife
and hear the angels sing!
For lo! the days are hastening on,
by prophets seen of old,
when with the ever-circling years
shall come the time foretold,
when peace shall over all the earth
its ancient spendors fling,
and all the world give back the song
which now the angels sing.
My point is that the 1982 Hymnal, like all liturgical resources, is a good servant but a horrible master. With some thought and effort, it's possible to choose hymns that unapologetically joyfully anticipate Christmas while at the same time not prematurely pulling out all the stops prior to December 24/25, the date the church has set aside to actually start celebrating the anniversary of the birth of Jesus. See more at "Advent Purists are Well Intentioned Killjoys" here.