‘A wandering we’ll go,’ ecumenical Advent lessons

Purple versus blue, Christmas songs everywhere by Halloween, Black Friday, the imposition of urgency in consuming…the usual rush around Advent – we all live immersed in some of it every year around the end of November.


In the US, Thanksgiving (particularly the Thanksgiving triduum of Thursday, Black Friday, and football) overshadows the beginnings of Advent, and the over-anticipation of a Hallmark civil-religion Christmas often obscures the rest of it. But the church in other countries have their challenges too, from the wholesale adoption of Black Friday (or the newish ‘Black Week’) to the Canadian obsession with Christmas bazaars in parishes beginning in early November (which means that the Christmas decorations have to go up in mid-November to get people in the festive buying mode!) Poor Advent, lost again… This is, thank goodness, not the scenario for all Christians – there are households and communities and parishes where visual and aural quietness is maintained, the comings of Christ (on the final day, in our daily lives, and the commemoration of Christ’s first coming) are balanced, and Christmas begins when Christmas begins.


It’s always interesting to see liturgy anew as an ecumenical outsider. I spent the first half of Advent in Sweden, attending Church of Sweden liturgies between conferences and visiting. After the first weekday mass, I had to go back to Frank Senn’s article on the 1986 changes to the liturgy (Svenskt Gudstjänstliv 2014) to see if I had actually heard things correctly – I had… But as the end of ordinal time turned to Advent, I was struck by several things – some in the liturgy itself, and some outside the walls of the church.


The first was the recurring identification of Advent with a text that many of us identify with the sanctus of the eucharistic prayer and with Palm Sunday. “Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, hosanna!” Inserted at several points in the liturgy in different musical settings, the ‘arrival’ of the familiar Vogler musical setting in the liturgy lit up the singing of the congregation by many decibels! (and the liturgies I attended, mostly at cathedrals, were packed) What an interesting theology to link together the various comings of Christ that are historically commemorated in Advent (but often overshadowed by the birth of Christ) with the image of “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” It fits for the multiple emphases of Advent, it maintains a sense of dynamism, and it anticipates all the comings of Christ with joy.


The second liturgical element was the resistance to ‘advent wreath creep’ in the liturgy. In spite of several official texts cautioning that the domestic wreath is really not central to the church’s liturgy, in North America the wreath is increasingly made central, along with a plethora of created rituals surrounding its lighting and the ‘meanings’ of each candle (often having nothing to do with the historical move from the penitential first two Sundays to Gaudete Sunday to Annunciation Sunday). It was striking to see four rather small white candles lined up in a row and lit without comment before the liturgy, or at the pulpit before the homily. The white candles matched the vestment colour – white – a choice that I did not have a chance to explore with folks who were interested in such strange things as liturgical colours!


The popular religiosity of Advent and Christmas outside the church buildings was present in the centrality of light – candles and small brazier fires everywhere, every window with a lit star or arrangements of candles, and candles replenished from the beginning of November on graves and around cemeteries. It doesn’t take much work to realize why when the sun sets about 2:30 in the afternoon. The short days of light, and the long hours of darkness made sense of the candles and fires everywhere on city streets and in small towns. As the text of the frequently sung “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” linked Advent with Holy Week, so too did the lights against the darkness in the afternoon dusk in Advent connect to the lights of the Easter Vigil in the middle of the darkness of night. St. Jerome had it right – candles do not make much sense in broad daylight! But in the dark, particularly in unwelcome dark, the lights brough a different sense of movement through the dark to greater light, along with a solidarity in the people on the streets, frequently stopping to enjoy especially the “living” flames of candles and brazier fires.


The differences in liturgy and popular religiosity in different cultures and geographies are a good thing, and an excellent reminder that unity is not uniformity. To that end, rejoice in the Lord always in this Advent season and in the joy of Christmas to come!


  1. The Sarum Missal’s Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent was Matthew 21: 1 – 9, concluding with the cry “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” Is it possible that some of the medieval Scandinavian liturgical books contained the same passage?

    1. ah, interesting (and I’d forgotten that Sarum gospel) – I’ll have to go exploring some more (thanks)

  2. In the Ambrosian Rite it is the gospel for the 4th of 6 Sundays in Advent, and in the Mozarabic the 3d of 6. Other than Rome it seems to have been a popular choice.

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