An Advent Purist relents

We've been discussing how the church should respond to the shopping season for a couple of days. Now, thanks to the Rev. John Ohmer, we turn our attention to question of how the church should observe (dare we say celebrate?) Advent. Ohmer, of the Falls Church in the Diocese of Virginia says that once upon a time, he was what he calls an Advent Purist, by which he means someone who observed Advent as a "mini-Lent".

Advent purists (as I used to be) steadfastly refuse to put up Christmas decorations at home during most of December, roll their eyes at Christmas music being played at the malls, and refuse to allow the congregation to sing anything from the "Christmas" section of the hymnal until after December 24.

But Ohmer began to re-examine this attitude because, simply put, it drained the anticipation of Christ's coming of any semblance of joy. He writes:

It strikes me as dowdy...frumpy...hopelessly out of touch with the people who are in our pews Sunday after Sunday to be crossing our arms and refusing to hear those wonderful stories leading up to the first Christmas: the stories about Elizabeth's and Mary's becoming pregnant, Joseph's doubts, and the journey to Bethlehem, to name three.

It strikes me as haughty to complain about hearing Christmas music before December 25, and only allow ourselves to pull these remarkable, powerful hymns out of deep storage at the exact time when most of our supposedly less-enlightened congregation is sick to death of them, because they've been hearing them everywhere else since Halloween.

When we insist on a strict observation of Advent, we are the only people -- as Christians - who are NOT talking about Christmas and singing "Christmas" hymns* at the exact time when we have the culture's fullest attention. Combine that with the often-accompanying self-righteous attitude of "oh come on, it's not Christmas yet!" and we come across as little more than dour, frowning, spoil-sports. And that is, at the very least, bad evangelism.

What sort of themes, values and states of mind and spirit do you try to cultivate during Advent?

Comments (12)

All in due season. The church does a perfectly fine job in celebrating the coming of the Incarnation in it's observance of Advent as a time of hope and expectation that I always experience as a bit of relief from the relentless consumerism that Fr. Ohmer seems to confuse with observing the Nativity.

"O come, O come Emmanuel," "Lo! he comes with clouds descending," "Sleepers, wake!." Nothing dour about any of these hymns that Advent gives us so little time to sing in advance of a breathless, candle-lit "Silent Night." Devoutly kneeling.

Maybe the problem is confusing Advent with Lent which it is not. Advent tradition permits greens in the church, extra candles to mark the Sundays, and singing the Alleluia before the Gospel and a lovely blue for vestments rather than Roman purple. There is nothing to prevent putting a wreath on the church door or even some lights on the shrubs in anticipation of the "Light from Light."

In the lessons, John comes preparing the way and Elizabeth and Mary celebrate their impending motherhood. God gave us a lot of time and prophets to prepare us for his own incarnatus. Four weeks of annual prep really doesn't seem like too much.

Sorry, I'm not willing to sacrifice all of this just to get to sing "God rest ye, merry gentlemen" for an extra month before Christmas and the Epiphany no matter what Macy's does.

Hear, hear! I was hoping for something much more thoughtful than this. Not sure why the Café bothered frankly.

For the most part, what I hear at the mall and the grocery store are secular Christmas songs (e.g., "White Christmas," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," etc.). I rarely hear Christmas hymns anymore, other than in church. So I wonder whether we've been ignoring the fact that Christmas has become SO secularized in our culture that people aren't nearly as familiar with sacred Christmas music as we might think, or as they were 30 years ago. If that is the case, then I'm all in favor of bringing Christmas (Jesus Christmas) into our churches and into our world for as long as possible. That doesn't mean you overlook Advent; you do both, in classic, Christian already/not yet tension. Any parish that has a Christmas pageant or a Sunday School is already doing this, anyway: Throughout the month of December, all our kids are rehearsing for the pageant, and our toddler class is pretty much "all baby Jesus, all the time."

I am much less sanguine about the "perfectly fine job" the church does observing Advent. We're too happy to be a place apart, decrying how the rest of the world celebrates the season, rather than attempting to shape how the rest of the world celebrates the season.

I'm not sure why Protestants have such a hard time with this stuff.

Being a grinchy Advent puritan and giving into the immediate gratification of CHRISTMAS RIGHT NOW are not the only options for how to celebrate this season of preparation.

Naval gazing, however, is apparently in season all year 'round.

As a recovering organist who was crucified every week singing Advent hymns until Advent IV (when the lectionary actually mentions the birth of Jesus), I too am a bit "grinchy" during December. But I think the problem isn't giving in to culture. It's in our refusal to deal with the possibility of a second coming (Advent I), and how Christ appears to us in many ways, as in the lessons of Advent II & III. I sometimes think that we focus on the baby Jesus as a way of avoiding what the grown man said (and says) to us. And, while we may not have the appropriate hair style for apocalyptic preaching, we do say "He shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead . . ." each week. Advent is a good time to talk about what that means.

Aren't "the people in the pews" during Advent the very people most likely to want Advent rather than premature Christmas? Seems like the audience in mind for this piece are more likely to show up just for the Christmas services anyway. Regardless, I think what the church has to offer during Advent is special. The rest of the world is manic this time of year. Some quiet and a spirit of hopeful anticipation is a wonderful antidote. I DO think it's important that it not have the same penitential feeling as Lent.

One thing I have seen done well is Advent Carols & Lessons by Candelight. No need to be dour about it.

Let each season happen as it comes. If we sing Christmas carols during Advent then why not Easter songs during Lent? Giving in to the secular society is not what Jesus did - and not what the liturgical year asks us to do. Now - at home we have decorations up - but we pray Advent prayers!

We tend to forget that we carved our celebration of the Incarnation out of the old Roman saturnalia and the winter solstice of Druid imitative magic. We shouldn't be too surprised that the old order continues unchanged. But Advent proclaims that a new order is beginning and it is this new reality to which the church should witness, not haughtily nor condescendingly, but by nonconformingly and gently passing on the gift of God's love.

As with many of the great articles linked to on Episcopal Café, it’s helpful to read the entire piece before responding. As I understand it, Fr. Ohmer is not at all suggesting we should “give in to the culture” and celebrate a premature Christmas, but offering us ways to approach the twin seasons of December (liturgical Advent and secular Christmas) with as much grace as possible.

I appreciate the invitation to loosen my resentment of being surrounded by Christmas, to let go of the need to “shut it all out” as I shop, or drive, or turn on the radio. It’s too much work to block it out. It can’t be done, and it makes me too grumpy. So I’m working on letting my principles bend a little, allowing a little Christmas sparkle in a little earlier, so that I can be more open and joyful in this time.

On the accepting reality front, I think Fr. Ohmer’s point that we start singing carols at the very point that our people are tired of them contains a great deal of truth. It might be regrettable (it certainly is for me), but it’s not something we can change about the culture around us. I think it’s helpful simply to acknowledge that, and not let our resentment of the theft make us extra grumpy and sanctimonious (poor evangelism indeed).

As for what that means for Advent liturgy in my church, I don’t know. I love the Advent hymns, and the evergreen and purple, and the quiet, joyful expectation. I don’t want to jump the gun to “Hark the Herald” (any more than Fr. Ohmer does!). Still, barring the ability to extend Advent into November, I think his suggestion that we look at the texts of both Advent and Christmas hymns, to see which might appropriately be moved forward, is worth looking into.

There is a movement about to extend Advent into November making it, like Lent, a seven week season. Perhaps doing so would allow us some time to faithfully balance our anticipation with the excitement of the American Xmas season. I've been reluctant, but that statement about celebrating Christmas right when everyone is ready to be done with it really hit me and I think I need to do some real discernment and reflection around that.
Jon White

Here is the website for the movement Jon White mentions. I think there is a lot of potential good in their approach and understanding. Check it out; provides an interesting counter-point to parts of this article.

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