In the annual despair of trying to hang onto Advent in the midst of the secular Christmas season (running from Halloween in the US, or Remembrance Day in Canada, until December 24), a new sadness has crept into ecclesial music circles – Christmas music in Advent, and no music in the Christmas season. In a number of smaller churches, selling the season has meant moving children’s Christmas pageants up to Advent II or III, and various Christmas musical events (within and outside of liturgy) into the same weeks, resulting in exhausted musicians by the second day of Christmas. In a conversation with a bishop who is also a singer in a choral group, the two of us commiserated on the reality that as Christmas approaches and both of us had a bit of spare time, there were literally no Christmas concerts to go to, let alone participate in. Having surrendered to the aural onslaught around us, many communities have missed both the music of Advent and Christmas – what’s a church to do?
For pastoral musicians thinking of next year, I can vouch for the fact that Advent music is both beautiful and enriching (and here, I particularly mean texts that explore and express the full richness of Advent – expectation in both joy and trembling of the second coming of Christ, recalling the need to reorient ourselves to what has begun and what continues to demand much of us, and the remembrance of God become flesh in the first coming of Christ, as well as the challenges of keeping before our eyes the everyday coming of Christ in this and all seasons). In the university chapel this year, we added a Wednesday evening Advent lessons & carols to the Sunday observances. In spite of clearly advertising the service as Advent, a number of people came expecting the usual Christmas lessons & carols. What was surprising were the comments about how beautiful the Advent music was, how enriching the scripture readings were, and how calm the chapel was in its simple greenery and purple. It was a joy to reintroduce people to Advent – this can happen!
But there still remains the seemingly eternal struggle of keeping the commemoration of the first coming of Christ in all its justice and beauty. What would it be like to extend Christmas through its full 40 days – until February 2nd, the Presentation of the Lord, or Candlemas? Some parishes have started (or never lost) a sense of celebration on Epiphany – keeping cultural and religious observance of 12th night, or reinventing it to round out Christmas in its December 25 to January 6th stretch. But 40 days – that would really counter some cultures – it might even exhaust the retail industry! Freely admitting that members of many cultures are simply shaking their heads at this point and wondering where we’ve been – they never stopped doing this – it is a reality that many Christians do not connect the dots between Christmas and the layers of meaning biblically, ritually, and theologically of the 40th day after Christmas. February 2 also marks the mid-point of winter, half way between the winter solstice (shortest day) and the spring equinox, another day, another feast with a focus on light. But it is not December 25th, then January 6th, then February 2nd that I wonder about, but the joyful space of these 40 days, to paraphrase Tertullian. What if these days were punctuated with Christmas concerts, or communities making music? What if the time grew to be anticipated to the extent that we chose these days for Christmas music rather than November or early December? What if visiting various creches started on the 24th of December? What if? Could an extension of this magnitude be enough to turn the tide toward a true Christmas season preceded by a true Advent season in Christian practice?
Part of the appeal is the popular religiosity woven together with official liturgy of February 2nd, particularly the blessing of candles and the procession – there are never enough of those, and certainly a perfect opportunity for good ritual music and movement! But there is a direct link to Christmas in ways far firmer than early Advent to Christmas that lends these 40 days a unified integrity. From the perspective of this second week of Advent, it may be helpful once again to reflect on the introduction to the liturgy, and hear anew the connections:
Dear brothers and sisters,
forty days have passed since we celebrated the joyful feast
of the Nativity of the Lord.
Today is the blessed day
when Jesus was presented in the Temple by Mary and Joseph.
Outwardly he was fulfilling the Law,
but in reality he was coming to meet his believing people.
Prompted by the Holy Spirit,
Simeon and Anna came to the Temple.
Enlightened by the same Spirit,
they recognized the Lord
and confessed him with exultation.
So let us also, gathered together by the Holy Spirit,
proceed to the house of God to encounter Christ.
There we shall find him
and recognize him in the breaking of the bread,
until he comes again, revealed in glory.
From the first form with procession of the Roman Rite