The Advents of our year…

It’s not Advent until someone rants and raves about the commercialization of all things Christmas that have destroyed the season of Advent and/or the problems with using perky blue in a season that could use some penance and humility before the great judgement seat of almighty God – so here it is (and no, the ancient Sarum blue of Advent is not a thing…) OK, I feel better…

But this is not just a reflection on those issues, cultural and ritual, but rather about the complexity of Advent as popular religiosity dis-aligns with changes in official Advent patterns, all subsumed into the ecclesial difficulty of maintaining a focus on the second coming of Christ.

Advent is complicated – we wait for what has already happened, but not until we wait for what will be fulfilled. These two comings of Christ often depend on the poetry of liturgical prayers, hymn-texts, and preaching to link them together with the daily comings of Christ into our lives, a four-week series of pivots from preparation for the second coming, to a slightly jumbled middle of fear and joy and confusion regarding exactly where we are (depending on the lectionary year), and finally the last week of preparing to re-member the first coming of Christ. (This is, of course, the majority of Western Christians, acknowledging that Eastern Christianity has a different pattern of incarnational preparation, and some in Western Christianity, have returned to the forty-day fast in preparation to Christmas).

Sometimes parishes are their own worst enemies in trying to keep Advent as Advent. The absurd need to schedule Christmas bazaars in November, to put up Christmas trees the beginning of December, doing Christmas lessons & carols early (rather than the beautiful readings and music of Advent lessons & carols), the fear that Christmas needs to be done before the semester ends or it will never happen (for those surrounded by university life), and more. We probably also need to explore the palpable fear of actually observing the 12 days of Christmas, rather than retail Christmas which ends on the 24th of December. This year, still in the midst of a pandemic, is the first year I have heard an authoritative ecclesial call to “stretch out” Christmas liturgies so where there are limits on the number of people in the building, all can attend a Christmas liturgy (just not everyone on the 24th or 25th of December).

But Advent piety and popular devotions, although a distant second to the Paschal Cycle of Lent/Triduum/Easter, have also taken a bit of a beating. A few examples of both minor and more substantial opportunities: for generations of Anglicans, there was a beloved association with the opening collect for the Sunday last before Advent, translated into English in the 1549 BCP from the Roman Missal:
“stir up (excita), we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people, that they plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works may of thee be plenteously rewarded, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
While one hopes that wills and hearts to just action were indeed stirred up, it was also the annual reminder to begin to ‘stir up’ the Christmas pudding (which needed a month of steeping in brandy or other). In its claims to medieval roots, more links to the liturgical season were made: it was to be prepared with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and the 12 apostles, with each family member taking a turn stirring it from east to west in honour of the magi who journeyed that direction. But that Sunday is now universally Christ the King (or “the Reign of Christ”) and the prayer has fallen aside for ones more in line with the feast.

The Advent wreath – not an element of Advent with an ancient history at all – had become for many a domestic ritual, a focal point for household prayers. In many parishes, however, there is an elaborate ‘ceremony’ of lighting the candles at the Sunday liturgy – overshadowing the simple domestic ritual, along with the strange adoption of names/designations for the candles which often have little relationship to the lectionary readings of each week, or at least over-simplify the complexity of Advent’s deep structure (and to the best of my ability to source these, originate with the United Methodist Church in the US in the last 25 years).

Gaudete Sunday is another example of shifting meanings. The 3rd Sunday of Advent was the counterpart of Laetare Sunday in Lent – a break from the onerous fasting and penance of the season. With so much de-emphasis on the penitential aspects, the call from the introit (no longer used in many churches) and from the scripture readings of Zephaniah and Philippians to rejoice, as well as the shift to rose from the purple of Advent, seems at odds with a season already full of joyful music and Christmas begun. Here liturgical colours come into play again – not because the colour of vestments is of primary importance, or because blue is itself a more joyful dye lot than purple, but because of why many are adamant about its use. Andrew McGowan, drawing on J. Barrington Bates, summarizes it best: “The fictive “Sarum Blue” mostly reflects squeamishness about the penitential tone of Advent.” (from “The Art of Public Worship”) To the best of my research ability, the North American phenomenon originates with US Lutherans in the 1970s (The Lutheran Book of Worship-Ministers’ Desk Edition, 1978).

In the midst of Advent there are a number of joyful celebrations often associated with particular cultures: St. Nicholas, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Sankta Lucia, which add to the complexity of the season in domestic or semi-public settings, even before the longstanding novena of Christmas begins with multiple texts (such as the O Antiphons) and engaging communal rituals (such as Las Posadas). One last example of popular religiosity lost might be in the wholesale cultural shift to Christmas by at least the middle of Advent in parishes means the camaraderie of ‘greening the church’ after the last Advent liturgy is undone because of the need to have Christmas decorations up to align with Christmas pageants and concerts much earlier. In listening to many reflect on that communal event, the music, the particular foods associated with this ‘greening’, revealed this was  clearly another cross-generational ‘common prayer’ that took place as the movement from Advent to Christmas began.

Advent has rightly been much discussed as a time of prayer, preparation, and expectant waiting, but not often as a time of popular rituals and piety aligned with the official liturgy. The pandemic has certainly contributed to the return of household prayers and rituals – how do we encourage the connections between the official liturgy and its ‘spilling over’ into devotions to continue and grow as part of the richness of such a glorious gift of time which Advent is for the church?

7 comments

  1. Thank you, Lizette. Good post! As my Advent penance, I gave up years ago and give up now railing against the commercial Christmas. Instead I try to help the people in our parish know that our God is a God who comes to us; who, in fact, is waiting for us down every store aisle and on every web page, who hides in the credit card bill or emptied wallet; who can be called upon in the stress as well as the sense of accomplishment, the depression and the joy. I even give God thanks that the commercial Christmas lifts up values of community and sharing, even if so compromised and imperfectly. I have much less patience for my sister-and-brother stewards of the mysteries who do Christmas pageants in Advent and move on before the Christmas season is done, or who, like the new pastor of a local parish once known as a place for good liturgy sets up (fake) trees and (live) poinsettias the day after Thanksgiving because of some vague appeal to “evangelization” and and in truth a clear indulgence of his own personal preference. Christmas this year is almost as far from the Fourth Sunday of Advent as possible, but the pragmatic among us will still need to set up the (fake) trees, if not the whole shebang, before Advent IV, because you know, yeah, because.The predominate culture in the US has no patience for patience and no ability to savor. Keeping the liturgical year gently and firmly could help us develop that most human of skills: savoring.

    1. Thank you for the lovely and graceful suggestions in real life! I wonder (often) what it feels like to be a “normal” person by the time Christmas actually arrives…i.e., one whose work and vocation doesn’t actually centre on keeping boundaries…

  2. Hey, I would be happy for Christmas morning Masses to not be an afterthought, for the glory of the Gospel of John 1 to be the culmination of the liturgical gospels of Christmas rather than cast to the dustbin of too-abstract-to-preach-about.

    The “tenebris” [to use a Latin word that carries less baggage in our current cultural moment than its usual English rendering] to which John 1:5 refers is not abstract, but an all-too palpable miasma-morass that many people feel enveloped and suffocated by for seemingly unendurable stretches of life. The supernatural pinpoint of the true Light that pierces it does not magically make that all disappear, but it does break its sovereignty, refuses to let it have the final word.

    That’s good news to preach. Not convenient or congenial news, as this is a bloody struggle. The Infancy Narratives are fully of details of what would appear to be, by material worldly standards, Bad News. Serious Bad News. [As too many people now take “It’s A Wonderful Life” to be a much cheerier film than it actually is, so too do people elide too much in the Infancy Narratives; here’s a reason why IAWL didn’t excel at the box office (actually losing money) when it was released – it was initially taken as more of a downer than it has been since.] But, in reality, they are tokens of Truly Good News, which is what John 1 makes manifest.

    It is the kind of news to which our culture is *allergic*.

    And that’s another reason why Advent suffers.

  3. I had no idea anyone had taken to naming the candles. Because you mentioned it, I looked and it’s all over the internet. Good grief.

    1. You are courageous. I confess I was timid about trying to figure that out, picking my battles to sift what is worth the energy of an Is Outrage!

  4. Thanks so much for this thoughtful commentary on the season of Advent. I continually try to help promote how much taking a break from the Christmas craziness with time for prayer, quiet and reflection is the great gift Advent presents for our culture, especially women who often feel the tremendous pressure of providing the “perfect” Christmas.

  5. Unless I am mistaken, the Book of Common Prayer Collect for the Sunday next before Advent is not an entirely faithful translation of the Sarum (and Roman) Missal Collect.

    The BCP’s ‘fruit of good works’ is not in the Latin, which reads ‘divini operis fructum.’ In other words, what we are asking to bring forth is the fruit, not of our (or any) good works, but specifically of the divine work. God is the source here, not humankind.

    The current Roman Missal translation tries to convey this with its phrase: ‘bring your divine work to fruitful completion.’

    The BCP doesn’t always give accurate translations. In this case, it is ironic that a radically protestant book should mistranslate a Latin original in a semi-pelagian direction!

    AG

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