Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In Advance of Advent

I'm going to throw this out here because of the way my day is shaping up; I'll come back and finish my thinking (and add a picture!) when I get the chance.

It seems there is a marvelously creative discussion going on about the liturgical calendar and Advent. I, of course, want to play.

The argument has a radical element, which is to reclaim Advent by moving it away from the post-Thanksgiving "'X'-number of shopping days 'til" American season, or just further back from Christmas to get a running start at the whole idea if it isn't post-Thanksgiving shopping that is ruining your year. I have no complaint with either option, but I have some questions about the efficacy of either approach.

First, we are strictly talking about a liturgical calendar here, a calendar with a diminishing impact on society's schedule, and even a diminishing importance within the church. Not saying it should be that way, but it is. The liturgical calendar is probably far more important to a monastic community than to a parish, even a Roman Catholic one. Advent may begin in America after Thanksgiving, but that's the telling point: the season (on the American calendar anyway) is Christmas, from the first Sunday after Thanksgiving (usually) to December 25th (traditionally NOT a day to attend church services). Then again, even ministers steeped in the traditions of the Reformed church (if it even sounds RC, abhor it!), have discovered the virtues of Advent; more or less. But still, let's be clear: the liturgical calendar is more honored in the breach than in the keeping, and more honored still by pastors and priests than by the laity, who don't use it to keep time for any purpose much, anymore.

I will offer the caveat that this may be slightly different in England, where at least for a time the colleges and universties had things like "Michealmas term," and where Candlemas may still have a meaning outside the rarified atmosphere of the rectory. America has never been a country culturally dominated by the Roman Catholic calendar, so it may be the liturgical calendar has slightly more meaning for England and it's eponymous church than it does in America, which has no eponymous church at all. But still, even in the days when Charles Dickens put pen to paper to call forth Ebenezer Scrooge and thereby "saved Christmas," Christmas was not only not a day set apart from the normal run, but it wasn't even a day when most attended services. The problem is: if we are going to revise the liturgical calendar so that it has more meaning for our lives, can we say the liturgical calendar has any meaning for our lives now?

I come as a convert to this discussion, not a natural born citizen. I adopted the liturgical calendar as my own, but I soon found my congregations did not share my enthusiasm. Advent, for them, already went on too long if it didn't mean the immediate singing of Christmas carols on the first Sunday after Thanksgiving, and continuous singing of same until Christmas Eve, at which point all Christmas greens should be removed from the sanctuary, all Christmas trappings stored away so they wouldn't be left around for New Year's, and all Christmas hymns packed away in the hymnal because we'd sung them for 4 weeks straight and we were sick of them!

I found that's an awfully hard "tradition" to turn around. Especially since the "world" starts playing Christmas music before the Halloween candy is completely devoured. But then again, I'm coming at this from a non-liturgical, or rather no longer liturgical, tradition. Perhaps when you let these things go, it's very difficult, indeed, to get them back. This was much less an issue in the years during which I attended an Episcopal church, so there is that. But still, at least in America, it isn't that: "Christmas has tended to overtake Advent not only in the world of consumer affairs but even in the readings we set aside for that season." It's that Christmas has devoured Advent, and heaved it over a cliff. Can we get it back by making it even longer? Or should we first try to observe it at all?

My understanding of the origins of Advent (admittedly fuzzy ones) are that it arose as a "little Lent," a period of preparation for the Adventus of the Christchild. It is still a period of preparation, but now it's the preparation of the Christmas tree for the burgeoning pile of presents it should start receiving beginning on Black Friday. When it started, it meant something to people. Can we recover that by tinkering with the system? Or do we need to tinker with the people?

My bold suggestion would be, not to alter Advent, but alter our perceptions of Advent. Chris has some interesting ideas about altering the liturgical calendar the better to prepare for Advent itself (prepare for a preparation; how liturgical is that?). I think, however, it's the right approach. Pentecost drags on so long that by October we are jonesing for something to break the monotony, and some of us take it in Reformation Sunday followed shortly by All Saints', and then we need a Stewardship Sunday (why our fiscal calendar is tied to the secular calendar, when our liturgical calendar starts in November, is another issue) and a Christ the King Sunday, which leaves Advent coming along not as the start of a new church year, but as that period after Thanksgiving when we...start singing Christmas carols!

There is clearly a problem here.

Maybe it's a lectionary issue:

We need a range of readings that look to the Nativity and to the End of Days. While all around us we're already being told to buy, buy, buy for ourselves, ourselves, ourselves, what if a richer and fuller season of fasting were marked off by service and gift-giving, waiting and preparation?
I would certainly favor a bit more astringency in the church services for Advent, as a preparation for the glories of Christmas Eve/Morning.

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