Faith Works 12-3-16
Advent emphases and priorities
Christian churches in many places last Sunday began a four week journey towards Christmas, called Advent.
Marked even in non-liturgical congregations, Advent is a way of preparing for and shaping our experience of Christ coming into the world.
Advent looks back, and forward: back to the birth in Bethlehem of Jesus, and ahead to his adult promise to return and finish the transformation of all creation into God's intended fulfillment.
So we look ahead to a historic commemoration, as we do each year on Dec. 25, done with manger scenes and living nativities outdoors and children's pageants; we also anticipate the divine "unveiling" of reality as it is meant to be . . . the book of Revelation is called "The Apocalypse of St. John" in many translations, since the original Greek is "apocalypsis" or "an unveiling," the uncovering of the true nature of things.
Advent is, if you look at it from the right angle, a big deal. It's not a countdown of shopping days, but a very serious season of preparation just as Lent is intended to be for Easter. Incarnation at Christmas, Resurrection at Easter – Christians are celebrating in these two feasts the core understandings we carry into the world about who God is and how God intends to relate to creation. To believe that the Creator intends to enter into what is made, and to take what we have made of it and lead us on to a more perfect resolution – it takes some prayer and reflection and preparation to really come to grips with what all that might mean, and that's why we have Advent.
But yes, it is a countdown. Which is how we can lose sight of Advent just as much as we lose our grip on Christmas itself for all of the wrapping and receipts and rigamarole of the big, big day.
Some worship leaders try to reclaim Advent with pushing back against "too much Christmas" before the big day. There's a case to be made for that. I don't see us going back to not putting up the Christmas tree until Christmas Eve, which in the early days of the tradition was the one logical approach (the lights being candles, the decorations being popcorn and cranberries, and the rest paper that was just itching to get lit up by those candles). Trees are pre-lit and artificial, decorations and lights and laser shows go up the Friday after Thanksgiving, and we're front-loading all the Christmas cheer at home and often at church.
One way I like to push back is to, at the very least, remind the congregation for the next two Sundays after Dec. 25 that it is now, indeed, the season of Christmastide; those "twelve days of Christmas" famed in song and story, and we can and should carry on the celebration in a new and different way until Jan. 6 (Epiphany, which is another story some other day).
But this year, there's a unique challenge, or at least it seems like one in some quarters. Christmas Eve, when many of us are having our biggest worship program of the year, is on a Saturday.
And yes, that necessarily means that Christmas Day, Dec. 25, is a Sunday.
I understand that for some churches, having a worship service on Christmas Day itself is just the way it always is. I tip my hat to y'all, but suffice it to say that it isn't that many of us, even in the heart of observant Christendom, think of going to church on Christmas itself. Christmas Eve has become the focal point, to the degree that I have heard a number of churches are considering not having any service at all on the next day.
Which is Sunday, and the day Christians gather on what the ancients called "the first day of the week" which commemorates the discovery of Christ's resurrection. In acknowledgment of the profound truth that both Christmas and Easter bear witness to, I can't imagine not having a worship service on a Sunday. So we will turn around, at our church, and come back – maybe not all, probably not even many, and God bless all who don't – and worship again after the gigundus service we held the evening before for Christmas Eve.
We'll just have one service, not two, and attendance may be light, but we will be there. As a witness to why Christmas and Easter and Advent and Lent are on our calendars in the first place!
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your plans for a joyful Christmas at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.