What are we to do with Advent?
The lectionary says, “repent and prepare,” but the rhythms of many congregations say, “children’s Christmas program.” The calendar says, “fast and pray,” but Sunday schools schedule Christmas parties with cake and cookies. Advent says, “not yet, not yet,” but church-goers clamor to sing their favorite Christmas carols.
What are worship planners to do?
That’s a question many churches are asking. The traditional emphasis on Advent as a penitential season anticipating the Lord Jesus’ coming—both his second coming and his first coming in the Incarnation—succumbs to the overwhelming volume of attention paid to Jesus’ birth. Asking “When does Christmas start?” highlights the tension. Although the classic calendar and the lectionary say December 25, many people would reply, “As soon as Thanksgiving is over.” The classic calendar presumes to spend the four weeks prior to December 25 in thoughtful reflection and preparation, gradually shifting to anticipating Christ’s birth. But that is difficult to do, given the popular interpretation of the season.
In the last church I served as pastor, the congregation had deeply cherished Christmas traditions that started immediately after Thanksgiving. Located in a small town, this congregation did not know it was missing some of Advent’s main emphases. Even if it had, it would not have made much of a difference. The people so loved their month-long celebration of Jesus’ birth that relegating it to the time after December 25 and before January 6 (the classic Christmas season) would not have been attractive. The liturgical tradition represented in the classic calendar did not square with the church’s own traditions. And so I thought of a possibility: I could “move” Advent.
The plan was easy. I moved Advent to November’s first four Sundays. Since my denominational worship resources (United Methodist) allow the celebration of All Saints’ on the first Sunday in November rather than on November 1, I began there. Focusing on our common hope in Christ’s
victory over death, I teased out an eschatological emphasis for that day. On the next two Sundays I used the lectionary texts for the first two Sundays of the “real” Advent. In other words, on the Sunday following All Saints’ (second Sunday in November) we remembered Christ’s second coming. On the next Sunday we heard John the Baptist’s call for repentance in light of the coming Messiah. The season closed with the feast of Christ the King, which comes on the last Sunday before the start of the “regular” Advent.
Simply stated, we got a four-week penitential, eschatological season in November by placing what would have been the Scripture texts and the commemorative themes for the first two Sundays from a “classic” Advent (Christ’s second coming and John the Baptist’s call) between the bookends of All Saints’ and Christ the King Sundays. The accompanying chart (see p. 8) shows possible Scripture selections for a moved Advent over a three-year period adapting the Revised Common Lectionary.
What About December?
Having moved Advent to November, what happened in December? I spent the time after Thanksgiving exploring more fully the wonder of the Incarnation. The basis for doing so was a breadth of Incarnation- and nativity-related Scripture texts. It was glorious to be able to explore the implications of the Incarnation before immediate concerns about traveling, gift anxiety, and excessive sentimentality set in closer to December 25.
Of course, one could do this in the classic Christmas season after December 25. Indeed that is a purpose for the time from December 25 through January 6. But given the influence of cultural rhythms of time, I guess that many people’s interests will have already wandered. For better or worse, most people assume that Christmas Day closes a season, not starts one. They want to hear what the nativity means before, not after, December 25.
I began the planning for December by choosing Scriptures. The lectionary suggests a full diet of Scripture texts focusing on the Incarnation for the last Sunday in the traditional Advent, the variety of Christmas services, and the Sundays between December 25 and January 6. The accompanying chart shows a possible selection of Scriptures for December.
Our congregation found several benefits in moving Advent. For one thing, the people seemed to have ears to hear in a new way. The cry of John the Baptist to repent, which always seemed overwhelmed in December despite my best homiletical efforts, was heard with great power in November. And their hearts were ready to contemplate the wonder of God-become-human on the second Sunday in December in a way that I had never seen on the Sunday after December 25.
Another benefit was the greater harmony between the music and its surrounding worship context. In December the people were ready to sing Christmas carols, hear their choir’s Christmas music, and see their children’s Christmas program. Having moved Advent, we could plan worship for all of December in a way that fully explored the songs their hearts were crying to sing and hear. Similarly, songs that speak of penitence, preparation, and our ultimate hope in the Lord as Victor of all things, including death, seemed to find a much better home in a reconstituted November Advent.
We also found greater harmony between other common practices like drama and decorations and an Incarnation-centered December. Most people wanted to rejoice in the wonder of Christ’s birth, but they wanted to do so before December 25, not after. In spite of the name, the Advent wreath, Chrismon tree, and hanging of greens functioned for many as a Christmas celebration.
A Historical Precedent?
Is there a historical precedent for “moving” Advent? Perhaps. There is some resonance between what is suggested here and early stages in the development of Advent. What we understand as Advent is only the last stage of a centuries-long process of creating a period of fasting and preparation prior to Christmas Day. Simply put, Advent was not always the four-week period we now know, and its major theme has varied by period and region. In some regions at earlier times, for instance, Advent extended back into the second week of November. In other regions, Advent—meaning the preparatory time before Christmas day—has had stronger focus on the nativity than on Christ’s second coming or other eschatological themes (see Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, pp. 147-155).
Is there a precise historical precedent for moving Advent? No. But seeing how fluid Advent was in its early stages of development at least creates a possibility for seeing the relationship between Advent and Christmas differently.
Having just suggested that I found it useful to “move” Advent in one congregational setting, I need to make it clear that worship change ought never to happen just because of the attraction of novelty. My “moving” Advent occurred in a very particular setting and was beneficial in that setting. That might not be true in other settings. In what circumstances would it not be a good idea?
When Not to Move Advent
One situation where the idea should not be entertained is in those congregations that have deeply held, self-conscious Advent rhythms. What made moving Advent possible was a congregation that had so little consciousness of the classic Advent tradition that they did not realize I had adjusted the calendar. For the vast majority of the people, including the other worship leaders, the time between Thanksgiving and December 25 was Christmas, not Advent. In a sense we did not move Advent as much as recover it a few weeks earlier.
On the other hand, many churches understand well the distinction between Advent and Christmas. These might have practices so clearly associated with Advent that moving them earlier would be disruptive. In such settings moving Advent would not be fruitful.
Other churches keep a classic Advent to maintain a clear countercultural witness to all-too-common December overindulgence. These congregations want to retain the preparatory and penitential aspects of Advent for this reason—and rightly so. I have a picture of a nativity scene in which the Holy Family, including the Incarnate Savior, consists of bears. In churches where the cultural environment is overly enamored of Christmas sentimentality, a visit from John the Baptist and a strong remembrance of the One coming on the clouds of heaven might be exactly what is needed.
Also against the idea of moving Advent is the potential loss of an “edge” on Jesus’ birth. Christ’s assuming our human nature is not just an excuse to party. Rather, as part of a unified ministry to bring salvation, Christ’s Incarnation establishes an icon of humility and selfless service for us to follow, as Philippians 2:1-11 commends. Ironically, moving the eschatological aspects of a classic Advent to November could diminish our fully contemplating the mystery of Christ’s birth. Even as we devoted more time to preaching and singing about the birth, a reduced remembrance is possible unless worship leaders intentionally connect the birth to the entire scope of Jesus’ ministry. The proper vantage point for understanding the manger is the cross, the tomb, and the second coming.
Worship planners should also hesitate to move Advent if it would create a clear visible break in unity with their denomination or ecclesiastical setting. The worship of one congregation is never just the worship of one congregation. In some respects it is the worship of a worldwide church. There might be instances where making such a sharp break from the practice of the whole would create a rupture in the unity among God’s people.
Other possible dilemmas arise from moving Advent. One is disconnecting Christmas Day and Epiphany (January 6). Moving Advent as suggested above “guts” this classic Christmas season of its Scriptural texts. It isolates Epiphany and leaves worship planners wondering what to do with the Sundays in between. Another possible consideration is whether moving Advent from its ties to Christ’s coming in Bethlehem and reconnecting it to All Saints’ and Christ the King Sundays fundamentally changes the character of Advent. Does it become too other-worldly when separated from the nativity?
Finally, moving Advent as outlined above might cause a church to be out of sync with its own Thanksgiving traditions. The plan as outlined above presumes the normal use of the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Having argued for a shift of Advent in order to be contextual, one might find it hard to resist a contextual appeal to emphasize Thanksgiving on the Sunday before that holiday. In that case, it’s possible to be left with a three-week Advent and, in years where November 1 falls on a Monday, a two-week Advent. (In that situation, there are only three Sundays in November before Thanksgiving Day.) This could lead to confusion and a distorted
lectionary that leaves out some major theme for remembrance. In other words, worship planners must show special care when moving Advent, since transferring it to November creates a ripple effect for several months.
|Possible Lectionary Texts for Advent in November|
|All Saints||Rev. 7:9-17||Isa. 25:6-9||Dan. 7:1-3, 15-18|
|Ps. 34:1-10, 22||Ps. 24||Ps. 149 or 150|
|1 John 3:1-3||Rev. 21:1-6a||Eph. 1:11-23|
|Matt. 5:1-12||John 11:32-44||Luke 6:20-31|
|Second Coming||Isa. 2:1-5||Isa. 64:1-9||Jer. 33:14-16|
|Ps. 122||Ps. 80:1-7, 17-19||Ps. 25:1-10|
|Rom. 13:11-14||1 Cor. 1:3-9||1 Thess. 3:9-13|
|Matt. 24:36-44||Mark 13:24-37||Luke 21:25-36|
|John the Baptist||Isa. 11:1-10||Isa. 40:1-11||Mal. 3:1-4|
|Ps. 72:1-7, 18-19||Ps. 85:1-2, 8-13||Luke 1:68-79|
|Rom. 15:4-13||2 Pet. 3:8-15a||Phil. 1:3-11|