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"Christmas" hymns during Advent -- a source of angst among many clergy and worship planners

"Christmas" hymns sung during Advent seem 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. And I'm the first to admit -- and have admitted repeatedly -- that I am a recovering Advent Purist myself. 

But here's the thing: if you take a close look at the hymn texts - what is actually being sung, what is actually being proclaimed, 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 have been somewhat arbitrary.

Here's what I mean: 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.


"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 splendors 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 thought and effort --thought and effort that Rev. Kelly, Julie, and I give weeks ahead of each Sunday as we plan the liturgies -- it's possible to choose hymns that unapologetically joyfully anticipate (and on this Sunday, only four days from Christmas Eve, even give us a taste of celebrating Christmas) while at the same time not prematurely pulling out all the stops prior to December 24/25, the date the church picked on which we can actually start celebrating the anniversary of the birth of Jesus.

Let me be specific: at 9:00 a.m., (in the Main Sanctuary), we hold a children's pageant. This pageant, which is based on the Godly Play Advent story, helps us appreciate several different journeys to Bethlehem prior to the first Christmas. The congregation will watch and listen as we hear the story of the ancient prophets who pointed to Bethlehem, followed by angels’ visitations to Mary and Joseph and then yes, shepherds and magi, who all undertook their own journeys to Bethlehem. The pageant stops just short of the birth of Jesus to allow us to reflect on the ways that we, too, are on our journey to Bethlehem as we prepare for our celebration of Christmas.

And specifically in regard to our 11:00 service (in the Historic Church), you may find it interesting how we try to strike a liturgical and theological balance: in a service of seven lessons and carols, we will unapologetically hear the lessons that tell the Christmas story. While we will sing some hymns from the Christmas section of the hymnal, the service is not a full-throated celebration of Christmas quite yet. For instance, we start with an Advent hymn (#74), and we pull back after the lessons and carols with another Advent hymn (#59). This still being the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we refrain, until Christmas Eve, from going all out and singing such hymns as "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Silent Night," "Angels we have Heard on High,""Joy to the World," etc.

I realize that in planning worship services, it's impossible to please everyone. Compromises tend to give everyone something to like, and dislike. Some of you wonder why we exercise any restraint at all, and don't go all out during all of Advent. Others of you believe we're capitulating to the culture, and would prefer we were Advent purists. I don't fool myself into thinking we've got the perfect solution to joyfully anticipating Christmas. But I do hope that by sharing the rationale, you see that what we're doing is not happenstance, but rather carefully, thoughtfully, prayerfully -- and most of all, evangelistic-ally thought through: how do we share the "good news of great joy" which the angels proclaimed that first Christmas, during this and every Advent and Christmas?


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