For as long as I can remember, Advent has been crowded out by the secular season of Christmas. These days, you no longer have to wait until Thanksgiving is over, but can go “Christmas” shopping even before the turkey is cold. Never mind Black Friday,” Christmas” is everywhere the day after Halloween, and Cyber Monday is THE day to shop.
The secular season starts so early that the tree – which goes up Thanksgiving weekend – has to come down the day after Christmas Day, just when the actual season of Christmas begins. Originally, this was necessary because live trees become big dry bundles of kindling in a few weeks. Never mind that church tradition had been to decorate the tree as part of the Christmas Eve service, and that it would remain the entire twelve days of Christmas, being taken down after Epiphany on January 6th. Somewhere, someone came up with the excuse (aka superstition) that it was “bad luck” to keep the tree up past December 31st … go figure.
The larger issue is that this season of the church that we call Advent has pretty much lost its meaning for us church people. Oddly enough, this may be truer in the Bible Belt than anywhere. Some protestant denominations were and remain so anti-Catholic, that many of the ancient traditions of the church were discarded along with the positive changes brought about by the Reformation. You might say that the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. It was not until 1985 that the United Methodist Church began to revive many of the long standing traditions of the church as part of what became known as “liturgical renewal.” A new hymnal and Book of Worship came out of that movement as did a reclaiming of other spiritual practices.
That does not mean that there was a ground swell of support for recovering our discarded traditions such as defining the “Christian Year” as beginning with the Frist Sunday of Advent, keeping a holy Lent and Advent, recovering the Christmas Season (those 12 days from Christmas Day to Epiphany), or returning to the practice of communion every Sunday. It has taken quite a few years for some of these things to begin to take hold. We even struggle to get some of our pastors to surrender their old Book of Worship, so the process has been slow. The publicity surrounding the release of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ on Ash Wednesday is responsible for the rediscovery of Ash Wednesday and Lent than anything we had tried.
I have tried a number of approaches over the years to reclaim the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany season for the church from ignoring the secular as if it were not everywhere, to going head-to-head with it. Neither are particularly constructive strategies being either too “out of touch” or too shrill and bitter. So, after much thought and prayer, I have a notion that (perhaps) we can live alongside the secular.
That’s why we started Advent two Sundays early, and increased it from four to six Sundays. Lest you think that I am introducing something new, in my study of the season, I learned that Advent was a six Sunday season for orthodox (aka the oldest) churches. This made it more like the 40 day period of Lent, and therefore an equivalent period of preparation for the two most important events for the Christian church: the birth and the death/resurrection of Christ. Six weeks give us time to read the preparatory texts that call us to make the path straight, straight from the manger to our hearts. This leaves us with two Sundays to sing all the Christmas Carols we can. Two Sundays to gather around the manger before we move on to the temple, the magi, and the second temple trip when Jesus drives his parents crazy.
More than ever, I think we need manger time. We need time to journey with Mary & Joseph, time to kneel with the shepherds, time to sing Christmas Carols. We need time to rekindle hope, peace and joy in a world that seems short on all three.
We are gradually decorating the nave and sanctuary this year. The season of anticipation seems to call for this gradual unfolding. The characters in this story will move toward the stable each week – and soon the life-size nativity will be a dynamic picture as well. By Christmas Eve all the Advent candles will be lit and all the decorations in place, and we will have sung Christmas Carols and walked the long road again to kneel in Bethlehem.
Even with the expanded Advent, we are still able to use the lectionary texts because the texts continue to work well for the first four Sundays when the emphasis is on preparation (especially for the return of Christ). The standard lectionary gives a year each to Matthew (Year A), Mark (Year B), and Luke (Year C, so as we move through the three year cycle, the last two Sundays can naturally follow along with Matthew’s emphasis on Joseph (Year A) and Luke’s emphasis on Mary (Year C). You might say that Years A & C allow us to look at the story of Christ’s birth from the perspective of men and women, respectively. Since this is Luke’s year, the women in the story will be emphasized.
Now, some of you (I hope) will be wondering what to do with Mark’s year. If you aren’t wondering, take out your Bible and have a look at the beginning of Mark. So, what do we do during year B, Mark’s year?
During year B, we will take a look at the genealogies found in Matthew and Luke as a way to further delve into an understanding of the two audiences for Jesus’s message: Jews and Gentiles. Each genealogy provides insights into the message of Christ as presented to and understood by Jews and Gentiles of the time. The great variety of Bible characters included in one or both of these genealogies should provide fertile ground for our spiritual imaginations. This will be a third way to view the advent of Christ into the world.
Will this help us engage with the season? Could it be an antidote to all the shopping? Will it draw us closer to the manger, to the baby Jesus?
What we do in worship is less than half of what is required for us to engage, spiritually prepare, and draw closer. The larger portion is whether or not each of us is willing to pay attend and prepare, to anticipate and approach the manger with hope and the knowledge that there we will find what makes for peace and good will toward all humankind.