ReThink Christmastide for 2010/2011

The Problem

We’ve all seen and lived the pattern. Christmas Eve services are a huge celebration bringing in folks we may rarely see at any other time of the year. On Christmas Day, unless it is on Sunday, we may be lucky to fill the choir area. The Sunday after Christmas is typically a low Sunday because many regulars may be visiting elsewhere if they attend worship at all. The Sunday after that is the celebration of Epiphany which marks the end of Christmastide and is also typically a “low Sunday,” one last chance for a weekend off before school and work routines resume.

Thus, while the church calendar has offered a full twelve days (thirteen if you count Epiphany) to celebrate and ponder the mystery of the Incarnation, the real church calendar” (what we actually do with this time in our congregations) may offer perhaps just a single night with any intentionality or intensity.

Clearly, the official church calendar and the real church calendar are out of sync with each other. With perhaps few exceptions, I see no easy way for individual congregations to get them back in sync, at least not in North American culture.

Something’s got to give. Either individual congregations need to become far more insistent on giving these days at this time of the year more serious attention and find ways to get their members to do likewise, or the culture has got to give the church these days back again. 

The latter is not going to happen. And let’s be clear about this. When Christmastide was recognized and set apart in the culture as a whole it was because the state made it work that way. Do we really want, expect, or even need that kind of thing to happen again?

Given the nature United Methodist congregations in the US as essentially public, voluntary associations, I see little likelihood of individual congregations being terribly successful at changing the habits of their own members to show up at these services much less participate in them in large numbers without alienating a lot of people in the process.

If we agree that we as church really do need at least a couple of weeks and probably several services during those weeks to focus intently on celebrating and pondering the mystery of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, we really can’t decide to let the current situation continue. We need the time. How do we find the time and give the observance of Christmastide the level of attention and meaning it deserves? 

A Congregational Solution
One answer is related to the one perhaps most commonly practiced by North American Protestants generally: carve the two weeks leading up to Christmas out of Advent and use those days to celebrate “Christmastime.” It’s not at all uncommon for congregations to start singing Christmas hymns by mid-December at the latest. It’s also fairly common for congregations to schedule a variety of Christmas-related special events, such as services of Lessons and Carols or cantatas or Christmas parties or caroling during those weeks. And the culture at large in North America seems to endorse such “early celebration” as well, especially given that Christmas themed commercials and displays as well as Christmas-related shopping start happening everywhere just after Halloween.

There are two significant problems with that approach, though neither is necessarily fatal. One is that it’s so easy to fall into (witnessed by the fact that we have in fact done so!) that we may not be consciously celebrating and pondering the mystery of the Incarnation as fully as we might. After all, Christmas really isn’t until December 24 after sunset, right? So at the present time we’re sort of engaging in the “guilty pleasure” of “pre-Christmas Christmassing.”

A simple remedy is possible for this, however. Make these weeks intentionally Christmastide. Keep the Christmas Eve celebrations more or less as they but using the readings for Christmas Day instead so the focus is more on incarnation than the baby in the manger. That way, instead of that service being seen as the kickoff, it could function more intentionally as the culmination of the season. That means moving the readings for Christmastide (First Sunday after Christmas and Epiphany) back to the preceding Sundays, and in reverse order. By this scheme, what had been the Third Sunday of Advent would now function as Epiphany Sunday, followed by the readings for the First Sunday after Christmas on the Sunday before Christmas Eve. This gives everyone the opportunity to do Christmastide intentionally while folks are actually around to do so and may have the added benefit of taking a bit of a load off of the next two Sundays when folks aren’t generally around at all.

Of course, it also shortens Advent from four weeks to two, perhaps to the point of leading the congregation to wonder whether we need Advent at all. And I would argue strongly that we do. Advent functions in the church year to refocus us on remembering that the end is our beginning and that we always live as disciples of Jesus in the “between times” of this age and the age to come already made manifest here and now. We in North America probably really do need four whole weeks to rewrap our heads around that understanding given that the air we breathe constantly tells us to live for today as if there is no tomorrow. We need that kind of sustained celebration and reflection so that when we get to celebrating and pondering the mystery of the Incarnation, we’re not doing so as those lulled by the siren songs calling us instead to ooh and ahh at the cute little baby asleep in the manger (which he likely wasn’t in the relevant texts!).

In our article, “A Modest Proposal for Advent/Christmas Peace,” Dean McIntyre, Safiyah Fosua and I have noted that it’s possible and maybe even helpful to consider starting the Advent focus two weeks early, as the texts at the end of the “official church calendar” actually pick up the very same kinds of themes as the Advent texts do. Doing this locally doesn’t change when Advent is, officially. Only General Conference could do that, and it is unlikely to do so. But it could add to your congregation’s capacity to connect with these themes meaningfully.

What we didn’t suggest there is what I’m suggesting next. Given that the texts for Christmastide would already have been used leading up to Christmas Eve, consider using the texts from Advent 3 and 4 during weeks between Christmas Day and Baptism of the Lord. In the light of the celebration of the birth having already happened on Christmas Eve, these texts could then be interpreted as lead-ins to Baptism of the Lord (the first Sunday after January 6), thus creating, at least for those who are around to participate in this, an even greater sense of “buildup” for the reaffirmation of baptism at that time.  

For Advent beginning in 2010, here’s how that would play out with a full four weeks for both Advent and Christmastide.

November 14, 2010 [Purple or Blue]
Advent 1

Isaiah 65:17-25
Isaiah 12 or Psalm 118 (UMH 839)
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

November 21, 2010 [White or Purple and Blue]
Advent 2: Christ the King/Reign of Christ

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Luke 1:68-79 (UMH 208)
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

November 28, 2010 [Purple or Blue]
Advent 3

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122 (UMH 845)
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

December 5, 2010 [Purple or Blue]
Advent 4 (Year A)

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 (UMH 795)
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

December 12, 2010 [White or Gold]
Christmas 1: Epiphany

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 (UMH 795)
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

December 19, 2010 [White or Gold]
Christmas 2
Isaiah 63:7-9
Psalm 148 (UMH 861)
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23

December 24, 2010 (White or Gold)
Christmas Eve

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96 (UMH 815)
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

December 25, 2010 [White or Gold]
Christmas Day

Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98 (UMH 818)
Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12)
John 1:1-14

December 26, 2010 [White or Gold]
Christmas 3

Isaiah 35:1-10
Luke 1:47-55 (UMH 199)
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

January 2, 2011 [White or Gold]
Christmas 4
Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 (UMH 801)
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

January 9, 2011 [White or Gold]
Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 42:1–9
Psalm 29 (UMH 761)
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Sounds like a win-win-win. Advent gets four weeks, or maybe even six.  Christmastide gets two. Baptism of the Lord gets more prominence. Everyone is happy, right?

Maybe not. This kind of local rearranging of calendars and texts really is a significant  break from the long-established Christian calendar and could be distressing to our ecumenical partners. So while this may be a win-win-win for local United Methodist congregations, from the standpoint of Christian unity, it could be a lose. It might be received as one more sign that Methodists are more interested in doing their own thing to suit them than being part of the “church catholic.” Maybe that kind of assessment would not happen where you are. Just be aware that it could.  

A Connectional or Ecumenical Solution
All that has been shared above presumes that congregations either do or should celebrate Christmastide more or less on their own. If the major reason that we don’t celebrate Christmastide more intentionally or with more energy is that a good number of people in our individual congregations aren’t around to do so, perhaps we should look outside the individual congregational box a bit. 

Not everyone leaves, after all. There are some people who do attend services we offer as individual congregations. So what if, instead of worrying about the gaps created by those absent we created larger gatherings of those who are likely to be present? What if Christmastide were not expected to be celebrated by each congregation on its own? What if, instead, Christmastide were planned and celebrated by clusters of congregations, perhaps even ecumenically, in local communities. Imagine joint choirs, liturgical resources shared from the riches of various traditions, preaching from the best who are present in the community, and festive meals shared from the finest recipes of each congregation that participates.

Imagine the abundance and the joy! And imagine, too, the folks from other places who may come to visit where you are, and their joy in finding that Christmas joy really does continue with gusto in the worship and the life of your communities, whatever the “secular” calendar says.

When I imagine that, I begin to imagine something else as well. A clustering of UM and other congregations like this sounds like a remarkable example of the body of Christ happening here and now. This kind of gathering, perhaps far more than our individual congregations, might be able to help all those who can participate both celebrate and ponder the mystery of God become flesh and body in our midst in Jesus. 

So perhaps, just perhaps, it is time to ReThink Christmastide.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Image Credit: The Peace Tower at Christmas. Ottawa, Canada. Used by permission under a Creative Commons 

“ReThink Christmastide” is Copyright © 2009, 2010 The General Board of Discipleship. Any local church or United Methodist agency may reprint any or all of this page as long as the following copyright notice appears:

Copyright © 2009, 2010 The General Board of Discipleship. Used with permission.
This page was created by  Taylor Burton-Edwards, Director of Worship Resources, GBOD.