Restoring Advent and Christmas 2012/2013

"The Lord Jesus Christ Will Return." CC 2.0 License.
The Need

Over the past 6 years, our three worship staff at GBOD have offered a variety of solutions to help our congregations and ministries celebrate both Advent and Christmastide in the ways each season has historically been intended to be celebrated.

Why? To some degree the picture at the right tells the tale. The key message of Advent is, as this man's sign says, "The Lord Jesus Christ Will Return." Advent has been a focused time at the beginning of the Christian Year to contemplate and respond to this great truth. It is the one time of the year we do so.

But look at the picture. No one is paying attention to this man's sign except the photographer. Everyone else is walking by, as if the sign means nothing. The sign is there, yes. But it makes no difference in people's lives. Well, at least not that April day at this market in Norwich, England in 2010.

I recently received an email ad from a major Christian publisher, promoting resources for Advent studies. From a brief review of them, however, not one of these actually dealt with Advent in a thorough way. All of them treated Advent either as a "contemplative time" or a time for simplifying (somehow related to winter, perhaps?) or as an extended "pre-Christmas" season. The same is true of several of the attempts to provide resourcing for Advent by other Christian and even United Methodist related organizations.

When we turn Advent into an extended "pre-Christmas" season, or only use and focus worship around the Advent readings for perhaps the first or second week of December, we keep Advent from making the difference in our lives as congregations it is designed to make.

We have a compelling story to tell and celebrate about how Christ redeems and recreates all of creation, yet we barely begin to tell it, if we tell it at all. Perhaps we even feel embarrassed about telling it in December, when we think or feel we should be focusing on the "babe in the manger."

Of course, even that story isn't the point, but is rather one point, of Christmastide. The birth matters, to be sure, but what matters most in Christmastide is not the birth. What matters most in Christmastide is what the Incarnation of God in Jesus begins to unleash in the cosmos, starting here on earth with us. 

Thus, in a very real sense, it's not just Advent, the culmination of all things in Christ, that we ignore or diminish. We also tend to truncate Christmas, the celebration of the mystery of the Incarnation.

Let's be honest here.  For many of our congregations, Christmas effectively begins and ends in  a single Christmas Eve service celebrating the birth and that alone. 

Christians need time to celebrate and contemplate both great truths, the culmination of all things in Jesus and the mystery of the Incarnation of God in Jesus. Advent and Christmas historically have been those times. But both have been deeply compromised in many of our congregations to the point that neither of these great truths receives anything like the attention each deserves.

Three Proposed Responses

In our article, A Modest Proposal for Advent/Christmas Peace, Safiyah, Dean and I suggested starting the singing of Advent music two weeks early, and to start singing Christmas music beginning with what is now the third Sunday in Advent. This would give four full weeks of Advent focus, at least musically, plus up to four full weeks for Christmas (counting Epiphany Day or Sunday), giving each some significant time and focus. This wouldn't require changing lectionary readings at all. 

A similar approach is offered by The Advent Project. Developed by Rev. Dr. Bill Petersen, Episcopal priest and liturgical scholar, together with a seminar of other scholars and practitioners in the North American Academy of Liturgy, The Advent Project also suggests changing the liturgical calendar, but not the lectionary at all. Petersen and company note that Advent used to be a season of seven Sundays until Pope Gregory VI shortened it to four in the eleventh century.

While Pope Gregory VI shortened the celebration, he actually didn't change the lectionaries. This meant that the readings appropriate for a seven-week celebration of Advent were still being read for seven weeks, starting with the first Sunday after All Saints Day (November 1). The current lectionaries Western Christians now use, both Roman Catholic and Revised Common Lectionaries, have preserved that pattern as well. So the Advent Project's proposal, already tried in a number of Episcopal, Lutheran and United Methodist congregations, actually aligns our celebration of Advent with the lectionaries we already have. Nothing else changes. Just the starting date for Advent, and, perhaps, as the project notes, the number of candles that might in included in an Advent wreath (seven plus a central candle, rather than four). 

The Advent Project website has not only rationale, but also a rich set of resources including suggested prayers and "O Antiphons" (related to verses for "O Come, O Come Emmanuel") for each Sunday to help congregations who want to try it get started with solid support.

The Advent Project proposal also seems also be to gaining some wider ecumenical traction. This year, United Methodist, United Church of Canada, Presbyterian Church USA, Anglican Church of Canada, and several other denominations will be at least raising awareness of this possibility through their websites. The Consultation on Common Texts (developers of the Revised Common Lectionary) hosted an ecumenical forum on the topic at our meeting in New York in March, 2012. 

A primary plus of The Advent Project proposal to me and to worship staff in other denominations seems to be that it stands as an actual restoration of an earlier Christian practice.

Many of us recognize at the same time, however, that while this proposal would restore a longer time of Advent celebration, it may not yet directly address what for nearly all of us remains a serious truncation of actual Christmas focus simply to the birth of Jesus. Somehow, there remains a need to help congregations more fully address the wider implications of the Incarnation, and the reality of absences and much travel at this time of the year remains a serious challenge.

That is why I have offered a third, much more radical approach.In my article, ReThink Christmastide, I offered an idea for  a four-week Advent and a four-week Christmastide. Here's how it works. Start Advent two weeks early, and celebrate it for four weeks. Then, on what used to be the Third Sunday of Advent, start celebrating Christmastide by using the readings for Epiphany. For what had been Advent 4, use the readings for the Sunday after Christmas. For Christmas Day and Eve, use the established readings. Then, for the next two Sundays, use the readings for Advent 3 and 4 as further reflection on the implications of the Incarnation and as lead-ins to Baptism of the Lord Sunday (first Sunday after January 6).

Here's a proposed set of readings based on this plan:

Advent 1
: November 18

I Samuel 1:4-20
I Samuel 2:1-10 (in place of the Psalm)
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18), 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

Advent 2: November 25 (Christ the King)

2 Samuel 23:1-7
Psalm 132:1-12 (UMH 849)
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

Advent 3: December 2

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10 (UMH 756)
I Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

Advent 4: December 9

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79 (UMH 208)
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Christmastide 1: December 16
Isaiah 60:1-6

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

Christmastide 2: December 23
I Samuel 2:18-20, 26

Psalm 148 (UMH 861)
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

Christmas Eve: December 24

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96 (UMH 815)
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20 (use John 1:1-14 if not offering a Christmas Day service)

Christmas Day: December 25

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

Christmastide 3: December 30

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12: 2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Christmastide 4: January 6
Micah 5:2-5a

Luke 1:47-55 (UMH 199)
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45

I acknowledged in "ReThink Christmastide" that what I'm proposing there is problematic on a number of fronts. It seriously messes with the calendar and the order of the lectionary we have and share with many other Christians worldwide. Worse, this year Epiphany Day (January 6) actually falls on a Sunday, so the change is far more evident than in most other years. It may be too much of a concession to the pressures of US culture. And because it is such a radical change, it may also be very unwelcome, even as it addresses our theological, liturgical and cultural needs for giving serious attention to both seasons.

How Will You Respond?

Your congregation, like all Christian congregations, 
needs to celebrate both Advent (the culmination of all things in Jesus) and Christmas (the mystery of the Incarnation of God in Jesus) fully and well.  The end and the beginning of our story in Jesus matter deeply. You know that. Maybe you do get in a full four week Advent, but even then people may be either absent or so distracted from December 25-January 6 that Christmastide is physically and spiritually a "low season" when it should be a high point of extended rejoicing and wonder.

The time has come, clearly come, to restore both Advent and Christmas in the lives and worship of the Christians called United Methodists.  So let me suggest you prayerfully consider how you will do something to ensure your congregations have a richer celebration this year than last of Advent and Christmas. 

Pick one of these proposals, and give it a serious try. Or try something else, such as a full regular celebration of Advent and Christmastime using the calendar and readings we already have, celebrating Advent for a full four weeks beginning November 25, 2012, and then a full Christmastide beginning December 24-- finding some way to keep the energy of Christmas going well after Christmas Eve and its focus well beyond the babe in the manger.

We have a powerful message to proclaim and abide in, deeply and well, at this time of the year. Resolve to do what it takes to make that happen where you are.