Advent & Christmas in the Parish

by Laura E. Moore, Th.D.

YIKES! It’s November already, and Advent and Christmas are fast approaching. How should parish leaders plan and prepare? I offer here some general principles for long-term planning, and some ways to approach Advent and Christmas this year.

This material was originally presented to The Advent Project, a seminar group of the North American Academy of Liturgy that advocates expanding Advent from four weeks to seven weeks. Our website,  http://theadventproject.org/, presents our rationale and offers many seasonal resources, including a suggested schedule for much of the liturgical year (the Resources and Scholarship pages are particularly helpful.)

General Principles:

  • Look at the big picture of the liturgical year: six months or a year at a time. Look at related seasons as a whole: plan Advent and Christmas together, and Lent and Easter together.
  • Consider offering frequent intergenerational events (one per season, perhaps). These can provide an organizing structure for the season ahead, as well as reinforce the unity of the parish, guard against children being relegated to a “church school ghetto,” and emphasize that formation and learning are for adults and children alike.
  • Remember that the events and activities suggested here are flexible and adaptable, and can be as simple or as elaborate as your parish’s resources allow. Don’t shy away from them just because your parish is small or your resources limited.

Suggestions for This Advent and Christmas

Advent begins on December 1st this year. On November 17th or 24th, hold an intergenerational event (perhaps around a potluck lunch or supper) to learn about the meaning of Advent, make Advent wreaths, and plan for Advent and Christmas in both parish and home. (The Advent Project website has resources that can be helpful for this.)

While it is difficult to resist beginning Christmas festivities too early, doing so means that the later weeks of Advent are neglected. Holding Advent Lessons & Carols on the 1st Sunday of Advent can immerse the parish in the rich texts and music of Advent, and give the people an opportunity to sing familiar and beloved songs like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Creator of the Stars of Night,” “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light,” and even “Joy to the World” (this carol is as appropriate for Advent as it is for Christmas!). Greening (decorating) the church on the 4th Sunday of Advent (as the lections turn from a focus on the Second Advent of Christ to his First Advent) is a fun and festive bridge from Advent to Christmas that the whole parish can participate in.

Think about recasting the children’s Christmas pageant as an Epiphany pageant. Making it an Epiphany pageant instead accomplishes several things:

  • It solves scheduling questions like: should we hold the pageant on the 4th Sunday of Advent? on Christmas Eve? (but when? since it is such a busy day and evening anyway).
  • It makes assembling a full cast easier, since school has started again in most places and potential Marys and Josephs (not to mention shepherds, angels, and wise men) will be back from visiting Grandma and Grandpa over the Christmas holiday itself.
  • It permits the rehearsal schedule to be a bit more relaxed.

With a little thought and planning, you can help your parish become immersed in the beauty and richness of Advent and Christmas!

“Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world:  Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

–Collect for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Laura E. Moore grew up in Connecticut. She got her B.A. from Nyack College in Nyack, NY and did her graduate work at Union Theological Seminary (M.A. in Old Testament) and The General Theological Seminary (S.T.M. and Th.D. in Liturgical Studies). She currently works at General, as the Head of Circulation at the Christoph Keller, Jr. Library and as an adjunct professor of liturgics. She is a member of the North American Academy of Liturgy, where she participates in the Advent Project seminar group. Her particular academic (and pastoral) interests are the liturgical year and the rites of initiation.

18 comments

  1. When to begin the liturgical year?

    In my own life the first chapter of the Book of Isiah which is read in the Divine Office at the beginning of Advent has been a key to my understanding of liturgy by connecting it to the service of the poor and marginal. However this is a very personal interpretation and not the one that is generally the focus of the first Sunday of Advent.

    The Byzantine Liturgical Year begins on September 1st, largely if I remember right because it was the beginning of the Byzantine Civic Year. Of course in many places it is the beginning of the school year, and the psychological beginning of the parish year.

    The Feast of the Nativity of Mary, September 8th, i.e. the beginning of the Incarnation cycle, and the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, September 14th, the culmination of the Paschal cycle, are good introductions to the liturgical year.

  2. An Ignatian Liturgical Year.

    My view of the liturgy year was very much shaped by the 30 day Retreat of the Spiritual Exercises which I made as a Jesuit Novice shortly before Vatican II. I was already praying the Roman Breviary in English, and since I could not do Jesuit meditation, the retreat was really an interaction between the liturgical year and the Spiritual Exercises, each shaping the other.

    So I see the beginning of what in my life is really a hybrid ”Roman- Byzantine” Liturgical Year (September, October, November, December) as being very much the first week of the Spiritual Exercises which is a meditation on the First Principle and Foundation and the Last Things and Ends with the meditation on the Kingdom which all lead into the second week of the Incarnation.

    Over time this experience of a hybrid Roman-Byzantine liturgical year has become more social with emphasis upon the Angels in September-October, and the Saints in October-November which go along with the social aspect of the first chapter of Isaiah.

    My Ignatian liturgical year puts into this time period a lot of the things that other people put into Lent, namely a review of our baptismal choice for Christ and the Kingdom. On the other hand Lent become a time of post-baptismal choices, e.g. vocational, that are made in light of the paschal mystery.

  3. The Advent Project

    There is a lot in how I have rethought the liturgical year which is sympathetic to how the Advent Project thinks about the liturgical year. However I wonder if calling the Sundays of November “Advent” and putting the O Antiphons up that early would really help things. I suspect” Christmas “ would start in November.

    I am not very sympathetic to making a great contrast between Advent and Christmas, and bashing secular Christmas preparation.

    We need integration of Creation and Eschatology, the Incarnation, The Paschal Mystery, and Pentecost not their separation. The Byzantine Liturgical Tradition seems to do that better than the Roman. My Ignatian Liturgical Year is simply a Western way of trying to achieve the same purpose.

    This year I have adopted a pre-Christmas fast beginning last Monday on the traditional western day of Saint Martins (actually you are supposed to do a Mardi Gra type of feast that day, but I did not have the time). I think either Thursday or Friday of this Week is the beginning of the Byzantine “40 day” fast.

    Typically these fasts have been less severe than the Lenten fasts. Some might find it useful to lose that weight before Thanksgiving and before Christmas and spend less time at the gym in January. It is always so crowded there in January!

    Christmas concerts can be a problem since they are usually around the third Sunday of Advent. One of our local parishes does an Epiphany concert, i.e. a reprise of their Christmas music on one of the early Sundays of January.

  4. Jack–the 40 day fast in preparation for the Nativity in those Churches that use the Byzantine rite begins on November 15th, the day after the feast of St Philip. Hence it’s known as Filipovka, or the Philip’s Fast. The fast is mainly kept at home, and there are no real liturgical commemorations except on the feast of St. Nicholas, during vespers and then the last two Sundays before the Nativity itself, the Sunday of the Forefathers and the Sunday of the Holy Fathers, commemorating the righteous before and after the giving of the Law and all the righteous ones from Creation to St. Joseph. December 20th begins the fore-feast of the Nativity during which the pre-festal hymns of Nativity are sung during the liturgy.

    1. @John Kohanski – comment #4:

      The local Orthodox (OCA) parish has developed “Advent’ along the model in which they observe Lent.

      On the Wednesdays of December they have Vespers in analogy to their having the Liturgy of the Presanctified on Wednesdays during Lent; they also have Vespers each night of the week before Christmas as a kind of Christmas Holy Week. Again the model is a milder form of Christmas ‘Lent’.

      I gather this is the way that some but not all OCA parishes observe “Advent.”

  5. I don’t think Advent as a liturgical season is broken, nor in need of fixing. I would strongly disagree with the recommendations. It would create a 7 week period of preparation for a festive season that lasts only 2-3 weeks, wildly disproportionate, the very thing that the calendrical reforms went against when they got rid of the preparation-for-the-preparation-for Easter (the suppression of pre-Lent). (If we had an old-fashion Germanic *40 days* of Xmastide, followed by Carnival, it might be more plausible. But that’s not plausible now in most places. The Incarnation season should not be longer than Paschaltide.)

    The original Western Advent was quite short, in fact, before it was lengthened for a few centuries before its current length for nearly the past millennium. And the Eastern pre-Christmas season is penitential abstinence, which has long gone out of Western practice; and here for the past few decades we’ve had all these people insisting that Advent has no penitential character and should not be confused with Lent, we should wear blue, not violet, et cet. (I think the protestations were overwrought and unpersuasive; Advent’s penitential character is different from Lent, but it does have one, that’s all.)

    Rather, the season that’s in need of support is: Christmastide! How many communities crown their liturgical efforts on Christmas Eve, let Christmas Day sag and then let the rest of the season fade? More and more, and THAT’s where the problems are. Let’s reclaim Christmastide when the secular world has muted the consumer-oriented Christmas music. Let’s find ways for people who find Christmas Eve/Day too painful (there are lots of them/us) to find joy in the rest of Christmastide that doesn’t have the baggage of those specific days. Let’s increase the liturgical splendor through Epiphany toTheophany (let’s more expressly embrace the Trinitarian dimensions of the Baptism of the Lord and solemnize it properly). Let’s offer an alternative those post-holiday blues that set in on December 26th for too many people and give them a proper Christmastide.

    We have the makings of most of this already. We just have to pay more attention.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #6:

      I agree that Christmastide should be our focus. What happened to the 12 days of Christmas?

      For the beginning of the Year 2000 the local parish had a midnight Mass preceded by the only celebration of the Office of Readings that I have ever experienced in a parish church. The pastor was unwilling to the continue it, but I think any parish that tried something like this (e.g. a peace vigil modelled on that used by Francis) and advertised it would likely build up a following in time. I generally observe December 31 as my world day of prayer for peace praying for different parts of the world as the New Year dawns on them.

      Martin Luther King Day is another day we should try to make liturgical through Masses and vigils for peace and justice.

      Of course we really need to bring the beautiful Theophany celebration of the Baptism of Christ into the Roman church.

      My nativity set is placed out on the small unheated entry porch to my home. While I generally take most of my house Christmas decorations down after the Baptism of Christ, I leave the nativity set and its many decorations in the entry porch until at least Candlemas, February 2, and may leave them there until either February 15, the equivalent Julian Feast of the Meeting of Christ with his people, or even February 24th, the date of the Armenian Celebration. November and December are very cloudy (lake effect) here East of Cleveland. However around the middle of January, the freezing of Lake Erie occurs which shuts off the Lake effect and gives us blue sky and blazing white snow. The Southwest sun heats up my entry porch with the nativity scene making it a delightful place to be.

      The Feast of the Baptism of Christ, i.e. the Octave day of Theophany, was the day many Palestinian monks left the monasteries for the desert solitude (in imitation of Christ) and did not return until the Palm Sunday procession. It is a good time to begin fasting if one needs a long Lenten fast.

      So my winter solitude, fasting, discernment etc. generally begin after the Baptism of Christ except that I do them under the winter desert of blue skies and snow. I don’t see this as incompatible with celebrating most of February as a feast of Lumen Gentium, the light of Christ who gathers a people in his Temple the Church.

      Fortunately this coming year Orthodox Lent begins Monday March 3 and Ash Wednesday is March 5th. So my Roman-Byzantine calendar is in harmony.

      1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #7:
        About a generation ago, Macy’s began a holiday ad campaign treating the 12 days of Xmas as a countdown to Xmas Day: obviously, since the mother lode of gifts was on the 12th day, that must be Xmas itself, right?!!!

        It is shocking now to realize many people have taken this reckoning in some form.

        (Sigh.)

      2. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #8:

        Well if the increasing early observance of Black Friday on Thanksgiving is any indication, the increasing early observance of Day after Christmas may indeed make Christmas Day the mother lode of all gifts..

        After all when we are now going to church on December 24th what is there to do on Christmas day but go to the Mall, maybe right after Midnight Mass!

  6. The Church’s pastors can be complicit in shifting the focus of Christmas to Advent rather than the 12 subsequent days after December 24th. Most of us, and I include myself in this, assist the laity in making the 24th Christmas Day rather than the 25th. Most of us have more people attending Mass on Christmas Eve through the proliferation of vigil Masses, multiples of them rather than on Christmas Day, beginning at Midnight. The least number of Catholics attend Mass Christmas Day, at Dawn or morning. So this could well open up to Christmas Day becoming a shopping Day as the Day after Christmas.

    Perhaps, like Pope Francis who endorses the hermeneutic of continuity as it concerns the interpretation of Vatican II and forgoing the “spirit of Vatican II” as it concerns the School of Bologna, we too should do the same with the Season of Advent and the distinct season of Christmas and assist that by eliminating vigil Masses on Christmas Eve and returning the liturgical celebration of Christmas to Christmas Day beginning at Midnight.

    1. @Fr. Allan. McDonald – comment #10:
      Count me as one who finds Christmas morning the preferred time for Christmas Mass. I grew up going to the Mass at Dawn, but the readings for the Mass of the Day are my strong favorite. When parishes treat Christmas Day as an afterthought compared to Christmas Eve, it leaves me quite sad.

    2. @Fr. Allan. McDonald – comment #10:
      It would be interesting to see what the effect of having only the Midnight Mass (or “Mass During the Night,” as it is called in the Missal) and Christmas Day Masses would have on total attendance numbers. I too am not keen on shifting the religious observance almost entirely to the 24th, but if if eliminating vigil Masses meant that a large number of people simply skipped observing Christmas in Church then I’d say bite the bullet and have vigil Masses.

      1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #12:
        A decision of this kind needs to be diocesan wide. Two years ago I eliminated one of our vigils. We had 4pm which is packed and flowing over, the most heavily attended a people begin arriving at 2:30 pm. Then 6 pm which is the Family Mass & pageant. Packed but not overflowing. Then 8 pm (3/4ths full)midnight, very full then 8 $&10 am. We eliminated the 8 pm vigil and I began pleading with parishioners to attend the very peaceful and serene Christmas Day Masses. I told them they could reserve rows of pews but on Christmas Eve they were forbidden to reserve any seats in order to prevent Christmas Eve riots. We have seen a dramatic increase at our 2 Christmas morning Masses.

  7. The Byzantine Tradition often has a special related liturgy the day after a major feast: December 26th is a celebration of Mary; January 7 the celebration of John the Baptist, and March 26 the celebration of the Angel Gabriel.

    In some years I like celebrating the Office of the Vigll (at 7pm) with the Orthodox, follow by an 8pm Christmas Mass, and then the Divine Liturgy on the day after Christmas. I like Easter and Christmas mornings at home.

    One would have thought that the liturgy reform would have transferred the Feast of Stephen from December 26th to sometime in the Paschal season when Acts are read.

    December 29, the Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas has the Gospel from Luke 2, 22-35 which includes the Nunc Dimittis ‘now you can dismiss your servant in peace” as well as Simeon’s words to Mary “ you yourself shall be pierced with a sword so that the thoughts of many hearts shall be laid bare.” This might be a very appropriate Christmastide Mass for people who are mourning the absence of their loved ones. It offers a great opportunity for choirs to sing some of the great repertory that is best heard rather than sung by the congregation. I am thinking of the Stabat Mater at the offertory and the Nunc Dimittis in that slot after communion which is recommended for Canticles. December 29th is a Sunday this year but it will be a Monday in 2014.

    December 28th, Childermas, has attracted some attention from the pro-life ministry. I think it should be developed with a broader theme, all the young who have suffered and died including not only the unborn, but those suffering from malnutrition, lack of sanitary water, and exploitation sexually, through hard labor and as child soldiers.

    Both infancy narratives make a strong connection with the passion, and offer us an opportunity to make Christmastide a season in which people should not have to deny their feelings of pain and sorrow.

    Both December 28th (the young) and December 29th (the old) are very much in tune with two themes of Francis, the marginality and disposability of the young and the old. They offer opportunities for our parishes to involve and affirm both the young and the old as we take a break from the “work” world.

  8. Before we get too far into this hobby horse tangent of the times of Christmas Mass let me remind everyone that the relatively recent past Midnight, Dawn and Day Mass of our 24 hr. December 25th does not tell the whole story of the tradition.

    The Vigil Mass of December 24th was originally said after None (should be 3 pm but later migrated to our noon) and before Vespers, in other words close to our 4pm Masses.

    The Mass in the Night was originally said at end of the Vigil office which began (like Easter) with Vespers followed by an Office of Readings (matins), e.g. for us around the period between 5 to 10 pm.

    The original Dawn Mass was not a Mass of Christmas. Christmas was an invention of the West which was only later adopted by the East. The Dawn Mass was for a popular Eastern saint and was attended by the Pope and the Eastern Governor of Rome!.

    There was originally only one Mass during our 24 hour December 25th! Our multiple Masses on our 24 hr December 24th are in accord with very early traditions. The popular midnight time is a late development facilitated first by clocks and watches and then by more frequent communion.

    I am very much in favor of restoring the Christmas Night Mass as a parallel Mass to the Easter Vigil around 8pm preceded by an hour’s worth of Divine Office with Hymns. Let the children have a 4pm Mass or even two with say another at 5:30 pm.

    Midnight might be a good time for a teen and young adult Mass with returning college kids perhaps preceded by Christmas caroling party in the church hall and procession to the church.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #15:

      Is it true that some priests in religious orders said the Vigil, Night, and Dawn Masses at a “private Mass” on a side altar? I know that in the Tridentine era the three requiems of All Souls’ could be said back-to-back without even turning to give the dismissal and blessing. I wonder if the same was true for Christmas as well.

      1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #16:

        While I remember serving three consecutive All Souls Day Masses as a high school student in my home parish, I don’t remember doing that as a Jesuit novice.

        Although we novices served the private Masses there were about eighty of us between the two years and only about ten priests in house so that we served less than one Mass a week; I guess I didn’t get a Mass slip for All Souls Day. When it came to Christmas, the Juniors (those with vows in the first two years of college) served Masses during the holiday period. They did not serve Masses during the academic year. Christmas was a special time for Novices since many of the first year novices were having their first away from home Christmas. Everybody did a great deal to make it special for all the first year people so they would write home glowing letters to their parents. Which I did, but my mother still cried.

        When I went to college at Saint John’s, the Council had begun and the Abbey became one the “experimental” places for working out how to do concelebration. That was done very quietly and even we pre-divinity students were discouraged from going to these Masses. Although priests still said private Masses on the days when they were not experimenting, they were beginning to discourage servers at private Masses, saying it was better for us to go to Mass with our fellow students.

        While I suspect Mass stipends encouraged priests to say all three Christmas Masses the complexity of religious life likely stood in the way. In high school a Benedictine from Saint Vincent’s came to say the extra Masses at my home parish; outside of Trappist like orders I suspect this was norm. There were five on Christmas day: Midnight, 6am, 8am, 9:30am, and 11am. So the Benedictine would get in two Masses but not a third unless he did a private Midnight Mass back at the monastery before coming to our parish.

        After I became 16 I took over responsibility for the servers since our lone seminarian had been ordained. So I was in charge of the servers for the Midnight and 11am High Masses but also got up to serve the 6am Mass since we had all the servers for the midnight Mass. They were then divided up among the remaining morning Masses for their second Mass of the day.

        One must remember that not only did Catholics go to Mass at high rates, they also went to smaller churches. My parish church was very small but had four Masses each Sunday, two said by a Benedictine. There may have been many priests but there also was a large demand for Masses.

    2. @Jack Rakosky – comment #15:
      My understanding of the origin of the popularity (with the people) of the Mass at Night was that, since the Vigil was a day of fast and abstinence for centuries, you could go to Mass and receive Communion without adding a further Eucharistic fast (no water until Pius XII) and then go home and feast away. (Remember, Trent, IIRC, forbade Mass between midday and midnight – preceding modern timekeeping and frequent communion by a few centuries.) So it would seem the Mass at Night long ago migrated away from Vespers.

      I am aware that the Mass at Dawn originated as the commemoration of St Anastasia, but it did morph fairly early into what became the Mass of the Shepherds (following the Mass of the Angels – at Night), et cet.

      And I am strongly opposed to turning the Christmas Vigil into an echo of the Paschal Vigil (which has only one proper echo – Pentecost, it’s metaoctave). Christmas works fine liturgically without having to ape the Pasch. The Pasch merits unique treatment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *