Keeping Advent

by

by Paul Woodrum

I was in our local CVS a couple of days before Halloween and noticed that the next aisle over from the trick-or-treat candies was already stocked with Christmas decorations. Everyday our mailbox and e-mail are filled with catalogs and advertisements for that perfect gift or that perfect decoration, or that perfect outfit for the season. On the evening news are images of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree arriving in mid-town and announcements of which stores will be open 24/7 from Thanksgiving on and, refreshingly, even a couple that won’t be open Thanksgiving Day so their employees can have the day with their families.

While the rest of the world lights up for the mid-winter season’s crazy blend of commercialism, festival and cultural Christianity, most of our Episcopal Church’s remain externally dark, unadorned, and preciously uncontaminated by the happy secularism all around us.

But why? Of all places shouldn’t the church be the one manifesting some outward signs of its preparation for the celebration of the Incarnation? Something that says we are joyfully preparing the way and welcoming those who would join us on the pilgrimage to Bethlehem? Are we protesting the commercialism about which we can do little, or doing a futile exercise in liturgical purity? I’m not suggesting we put Santa Claus on the roof before Halloween. Just that, beginning with the First Sunday of Advent, we do a little of our own welcoming decoration. Instead of shutting out the world, let’s go with the flow and invite the world in with our own outward signs of joyful preparation: ChristmasTraditionalWreathOnDoor.jpgwreaths on the doors, a tree lighting for that evergreen on the front lawn with folks gathered for Advent carols and hot chocolate, a lighted Christmas Crib, an outdoor Advent wreath marking the Sundays until Christmas, lighted evergreen around the doors, whatever seems suitable (and of course, tasteful) in the local situation.

Most of the signs of the season originated before Christianity, but the church adopted them, adapted them, reinterpreted them and preserved them through the centuries suggesting we shouldn’t be too proud to use them even if secular society has also claimed them. This season’s gift giving originated with the Roman’s Saturnalia that ended on the 25th of December with the feast of Sol Invictus. The Germanic tribes observed Yule, the imitative magic of burning a great log to urge the sun’s return. The Celts adorned their houses with evergreens as a sign of hope between growing seasons. Even the halos that frame Mary, Joseph and Jesus are derived from the symbols of the Egyptian sun deities, Isis and Ra.

Instead of shutting the world out, let’s go with the flow and invite the world in with our own outward signs like wreaths on the doors, a community tree lighting with Advent carols and hot chocolate featuring that pine on the front lawn, a lighted Christmas Crib, an outdoor Advent wreath, a sign inviting folks to join us in welcoming the Christ and preparing the way of the Lord, by embracing, rather than denying, the secular, seasonal joy. I’m not saying, “rush Christmas,” that we all know doesn’t really begin until its Eve on December 24, but at least let passersby know we are preparing for its coming even more than Macy’s, and welcome them to join us in celebrating God with us. Then keep the lights on and the decorations up through the First Sunday after Epiphany, the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus.

We do this inside. Flowers give way to simple evergreens, Advent candles are lit Sunday by Sunday, medieval blue increasingly replaces the 19th century Roman purple reserved for Lent where the plainer beige array isn’t used. We have wonderful Advent hymns that hint at the joy to come and the discipline not to sing Christmas songs and carols until that season arrives. If we can mark our Incarnation pilgrimage inside, why not a few visible signs outside to share the joy with the secular by inviting them in to share the joy of our faith and to extend the season to its conclusion?

The Rev. Paul Woodrum is a retired Episcopal priest who lives in Brooklyn, NY, and supplies in the Dioceses of Long Island and New York. Since 1985 he and his husband, Victor Challenor, have been partners in Challwood Studio, designing and crafting contemporary liturgical vestments and ornaments.

Image by Spirtu, via Wikimedia Commons

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Paul Woodrum
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Paul Woodrum

It's not a matter of keeping Christmas before Christmas but recognizing the Advent emphasis has changed, as have ecclesiastical and social customs, since the 4th century AD. The Revised Common Lectionary has moved those four last things to the last Sundays after Pentecost, an ending before the new beginning now emphasized in Advent. Joyous preparation is now more the theme, preparing the way with John the Baptizer and joy with Mary. With a much diminished emphasis on penance and contrition, it really is no longer a mini-Lent. Rather than try to continue to force it into that mold we might as well, as a dear friend used to say, save our breath to cool our soup.

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John-Julian,OJN
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John-Julian,OJN

And why not take on Lent next? How about eggnogs on Maundy Thursday, Alleluia hymns during the Stripping of the Altars, Easter eggs at the Altar of Repose, lilies on Good Friday, and liturgical dance on Holy Saturday.

Look: Advent was CREATED to be penitential—without that there is absolutely no point in there being an Advent at all. The very notion of Advent is that it NOT be celebrative.

The earliest references in any surviving documents to what we now call "Advent" come from as far back as 336 AD when the obscure Christian writer Philatrius in his essay "Epiphania" mentioned that following the example of the fast that precedes Easter, there was "the fast before Christmas" that had been adopted in Rome previous to that date—and later on in Gaul. Indeed, a penitential Advent is OLDER than the Nicene Creed (which wasn't completed until 381)!

And almost from the beginning, not only was Advent oriented towards preparation for Christmas, but also towards preparing for the second Coming of Jesus at the end of the world. The ancient tradition of preaching on "The Four Last Things" on the Sundays in Advent (Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell), was first heard at the Eleventh Council of Toledo in 675 CE (and later refined at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215) and is obviously related to preparation for the Eschaton.

In my first parish in a small town, Episcopal, Lutheran and Catholic clergy got together, printed up a sign in purple ink saying "WE ARE KEEPING ADVENT" and offered all the shops in our little town that if they would put up this sign in their shop windows and NOT decorate, we would carry their advertisements in our weekly parish printed bulletins. About 75% took us up on it—and were grateful not to have to go through the expensive and time-consuming business of decorating.

I would suggest that a simple decision be made: either keep Advent as the penitential season it was meant to be, or forget about Advent altogether and join the secular world in its paroxysms of loud noise, flashy colors, heaps of money, and madness

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Roselyn Drake
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Roselyn Drake

We share Advent with beginning of summer holidays, final exams, end of year concerts etc.

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