Saturday, 8 December 2012

What became of Advent?

I love Christmas. I enjoy the worship  – the re-telling of the Nativity Story and the singing of the carols. I look forward to the festivities, the mulled wine on Christmas Eve and the sparkling wine on Christmas Day, the family around, the food to enjoy and the fire in the grate. Lovely!
When it comes to the Christmas services, while I know that very many folks appreciate the Christmas Eve midnight service, I think I find myself more drawn to the Festival of Lessons and Carols when the familiar carols are sung and the sequence of biblical readings sets the birth of Jesus into the wider context of unfolding salvation history.
But I also adore Advent. I appreciate Advent not simply because it is a time of preparation, anticipation and hope, but because it is a season which dares to tackle some of the more difficult biblical themes such as death, judgement, the Second Coming of Jesus and so forth.
And I hate the way in which Advent has become invaded by Christmas! Why can we not allow Advent to be Advent?
Now lest I be considered a real Scrooge (and I have lately been so accused!) let me say again how much I love Christmas and let me confess to writing this blog in the shadow of a decorated Christmas Tree! But I did get a bit irritated when two weeks ago I received a text from a family member asking when we could exchange family Christmas presents and again last week when Edinburgh launched its Christmas celebrations with fireworks, tree and Santa... before we had even marked St Andrew's Day, far less begun to mark Advent!
Before Advent had begun, Christmas Trees had appeared, I had been approached by Santa outside Fraser's, I heard a brass band playing 'Jingle Bells' and adverts on the television kept insisting that 'It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas'!
Where did Advent go?
Why are some churches already singing carols?
When did we allow Advent to become simply the prelude to and a preview of Christmas?
A former colleague used to hold off choosing any Christmas hymn in worship until after midnight on Christmas Eve (and then - of course - his congregation would go on joyfully singing them right through the Season of the Incarnation). I can sympathise with his viewpoint. After all we would never dream of singing 'Thine be the Glory' on Good Friday, would we?
But – unlike him – I have never been able to sufficiently resist the congregational demands or the external expectations to completely avoid singing a Christmas hymn during Advent (although I do try to avoid congregational carols until the Sunday before Christmas).
Of course missional and pastoral considerations play a part in our decisions. We touch here on a much bigger tension regarding when it is appropriate to respond to culture and the opportunities with which we are presented and when we need to be counter-cultural.
But that will take us down another road.
Back to Advent.
I do not think of myself as a liturgical purist (although I was recently - and unfairly in my view - accused of being a liturgical legalist on this matter!) But if we continue to allow Christmas to so take over Advent that this wonderful season becomes nothing more than preparation, prelude and preview then I have a number of concerns.
Do we also then follow the trend of seeing Christmas Day as a huge climax after which we forget all about the Incarnation and stop singing Christmas hymns rather than regarding Christmas Day as the beginning of the Season of the Incarnation with so much depth to the mystery of the Incarnation to be explored through the weeks after Christmas and Epiphany?
Are we in danger of being moulded by a culture that no longer sees any necessity for or virtue in the discipline of waiting? (I heard the other day of a mother telling her very young daughter that she could not have a Christmas Tree up quite yet; it was not yet time. I suspect that little girl may be learning appropriate values which others could be denied.) People have forgotten how to wait.
Could we be missing many pastoral and missional opportunities of offering an alternative way of approaching Christmas for those (the many?) who despair of the pressure, commercialism, enforced jollity etc that seems to dominate from mid-November? (It is argued by some that the church is at its missional best when it is counter-cultural. I think that may be right.).
But my biggest concern is this. When does the church deal with the big and important themes represented by Advent if Advent itself becomes swamped by Christmas? The issue of waiting and waiting and waiting more for God's promises to be fulfilled and for our prayers to be answered; questions of life and death, light and darkness; the challenges of repentance and judgement... and so on.
At that other great annual Christian festival – Easter -  I have fears that many Sunday worshippers (who may not attend worship through Holy Week and on Good Friday) can move directly from the Hosannas of Palm Sunday to the Hallelujahs of Easter Sunday without having journey to and through Gethsemane and Golgotha.
I suppose that is similar to what I fear most about the Christmasization of Advent.
So, what HAS become of Advent?