by Steve Kindle
Pastors in the Liturgical traditions find that Advent has been smuggled out of the church, and in broad daylight to boot!
The Liturgical Year is a way of educating the people about the biblical story of salvation needed to offset the nearly universal illiteracy of Christendom in its formative years, until almost modern times. The Church Calendar (or Liturgical Year) was devised many centuries ago as a way to provide not only information, but also psychological and emotional involvement with the story. It is a pageant with the congregants acting out the story as it unfolds.
It’s no accident that the church year begins with Advent. It is a time devoted to preparing the church for the coming of the Christ into the world. All of salvation history leads to this climax. You might say that the Hebrew Bible is prolegomena, and the New Testament is its realization. The key to the success of Advent is in the adequacy of the preparation. In the early centuries of the Christian church, many Christians would spend 40 days in penance, prayer, and fasting to prepare for baptism. Eventually, this became the practice now incorporated into the Advent Season. For the already baptized, it serves as a means of repentance, recommitment, and hope for a better world. That is, if Advent is understood and used for these purposes.
Let’s face it: spiritual disciplines are mostly an afterthought these days in mainline Protestant circles. In too many congregations, lay people prepared to assist in worship are hard to come by. Church services that run over an hour, and sermons more than 20 minutes long, are unwelcome. Advent requires introspection and spiritual inventory taking. It also requires a modicum of patience. Americans in general find these difficult.
Our culture is no friend of Advent, either. It’s hard to sing, “O Come, O Come, Immanuel,” when the radio and shopping malls are blaring Christmas carols all day, even beginning before Thanksgiving. The television stations are running Christmas movies and specials weeks before, as well. Black Friday, Local Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, all focus on getting ready for Christmas with a material bent, not really in preparation for the “spirit of the season.” When the first of the Twelve Days of Christmas finally arrives on December 25th, we’re done with the whole thing, and throw it out with the present wrappings and drooping Christmas tree. Most people in the church I know are surprised when I tell them that Christmas has just started. They are too pooped to care.
Every church I served followed the Liturgical Year, and I normally preached from the lectionary. Come Advent, I strictly adhered to the preparation motif with the blessing of the worship committee. But that’s as far as the blessing went. Complaints arose immediately that I was dampening the Christmas spirit by not singing the carols. Try as I might to educate about the purpose of Advent, I always lost out. I realized that the time to inform the church about Advent is not during Advent.
But the biggest loser in all this is not Advent; it’s Christmas. Or, better put, the people who do not adequately prepare for the coming of the Christ into the world are the big losers. Christmas, for them, remains bound up in family reunions, present giving and receiving, tree decorating, rum drinks, and “chestnuts roasting on the open fire.” None of these is inappropriate in itself. It’s what’s omitted that causes the loss. This ushers in “Christmas Lite.”
One of the objections to a strict Advent observance came in the form of this query: “Why do we have to prepare for Jesus to come when he’s already arrived?” The short answer (and perhaps the best one) is that for many in our world, our country, our city, even our family, Jesus has yet to arrive. He is still standing at the door, knocking, waiting to be invited in. And in a very real way, Jesus is still standing outside our door, wanting to be given the full run of our lives, not just the areas we currently allow him access to.
Without a full-featured Advent, we hasten the arrival of the Christ, who arrives too soon and is as exhausted as we are. We have not prepared for his arrival, are not sure what to do with him, and can’t wait for him to leave, along with all the other guests the season has accumulated. Besides, we have to get all those unwanted presents back to the stores so we can exchange them for what we really want. And it doesn’t seem to be Advent anymore.