Minor-Key Advent, Second Coming Sundays, and Lord's Supper During Fellowship Meals

Q We’ve had complaints of having too much of a “minor-key Advent” in our church. How would you respond?

A It all depends!

Advent is a time of great hope. But it is also a time to dwell honestly with the fact that our full hopes for Christ’s second coming are not yet fulfilled. Advent is also a time of waiting.

Think about how visual art depends on contrast. For us to experience light, we need the background of darkness. So the pastoral challenge for Advent is calibrating how to express both darkness and light, long-suffering waiting and eager hope. To do that well requires prayerfully considering what emotions are most pastorally significant (and not just aesthetically pleasing) for your congregation to express.

Communities that live with palpable fear and anxiety need to dwell with the profound comfort of God’s ultimate eschatological promises. These communities need the buoyant confidence of infectious Taizé refrains (“Prepare the way of the Lord, and all people will see the salvation of our God”), joyous gospel anthems like “Soon and Very Soon” (“No more dyin’ there. . .”), or the comforting words of Isaiah 40 (“Comfort, comfort now my people”). Using all of these songs would make for an Advent service with music entirely in major keys, a pastorally appropriate approach in some contexts.

In contrast, communities that are relatively content with the status quo need to be challenged to identify with the lonely, longing sense of Advent waiting and expectation, as voiced by the Taizé refrain “Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. . . .” or Marty Haugen’s “For you, O Lord, my soul in stillness waits; truly my hope is in you.” These minor-key Advent songs are an invitation to express solidarity with the suffering of the world and to regain an honest awareness of profound brokenness in every social structure, family, and community.

Most congregations probably need a bit of both messages woven together, as they are in the prophet Isaiah.

Q We never seem to focus on Jesus’ second coming. Why not have “Second Coming Sunday?”

A This is a wonderful question—and very appropriate for an Advent issue of RW. The first Sunday of Advent is one of the best days of the year to focus on the second coming—most lectionaries suggest readings that very much focus on Christ’s second coming.

Addressing the nature of Christ’s second coming is especially crucial given the relative lack of attention to this theme in Christian teaching, preaching, and theologizing. Theologian Daniel Migliore names the lack of interest in the second coming as “the impoverishment of the life and witness of the ecumenical church” (Roger Van Harn, ed., Exploring and Proclaiming the Apostles’ Creed, Eerdmans, 2004).

Focusing on Christ’s second coming in Advent helps us to see ourselves as waiting people just like ancient Israel. It helps us to enter into the present-day significance of all the Old Testament promises of a coming savior. And it prevents us from thinking that Advent is only about the story of the nativity—a common temptation in church life today.

Q Why can’t we have the Lord’s Supper during a fellowship meal rather than a worship service? Isn’t that the way it was originally celebrated?

A Celebrations of the Lord’s Supper at a congregational fellowship meal can be very appropriate and fitting. Churches in many traditions practice this occasionally, especially on Maundy Thursday.

But as you consider this, be aware of how different the original Passover and contemporary fellowship meals really are. The Passover was a ritualized meal with highly patterned actions, foods, and gestures that conveyed significant spiritual meaning. Participation in such an event would feel more like a liturgy than a contemporary potluck.

In this light, I do have concerns about Lord’s Supper practices in some communities where the sacrament functions as a brief visual aid at the close of an informal meal. Simplicity is laudable. But our practices also should be weighty enough to bear the wonderful, profound mystery of the sacrament—which is as weighty for us as Passover was for Jews in Jesus’ day.

So when celebrating the Lord’s Supper during a meal, it is wise to do so under the authority of the consistory, in a meal that is clearly a public event (like a worship service), and that is led by a pastor with theologically grounded prayers, gestures, and words drawn from historic Lord’s Supper liturgies.

If your motive for wanting to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a fellowship meal is simply to make the sacrament more casual, I would be concerned. But if it is to deepen the congregation’s participation and bring to light its richly symbolic actions, then I encourage you to proceed, especially on Maundy Thursday.

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 89 © September 2008 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.