Sunday, November 29, 2009


Another piece from the local paper:

Recovering the Lost Season of Advent

In an age where the most important thing about Christmas tends to be how the economy has fared, perhaps a look into past traditions can help us recover a better focus. Many of us have heard of Advent Calendars and, indeed, you can still find them in stores. Most have a little treat of candy or a simple toy like a marble or a bouncy ball. These calendars are made for children, of course, and usually start on December first and help the child count down the days until Christmas, when, hopefully, he will find something other than coal in his stocking.

The wreaths associated with Christmas are actually borrowed from another season of the year. They were known in the past—and still are by many—as Advent Wreaths. Christmas has taken them over. Christmas has, in fact, taken over the whole season of Advent.

I would contend that this is a mistake and a sorry loss for our culture. Advent is a very different season from Christmas. Advent is all about preparation and anticipation—very like the child’s anticipation of Christmas morning. But the current Christmas rush—carols and decorations up this year long before Thanksgiving—misses the finer points of the Advent preparation.

Advent as a season can be traced in the literature of the Church to the 500s. As the feast of Christmas grew in its importance and in its celebration, a time of preparation to Christmas began to be observed as well, just as Lent was a time of preparation for Easter.

In the Eastern Church, the Advent season is known as the Little Lent. Advent is a time of fasting, of preparation, of penitence and of discipline. It is shorter than Lent and not quite as rigorous. The preparation is for the celebration of Christmas, the birth of God as man, and for the second coming of the God/Man Jesus Christ who will, in the words of the creeds, come again to judge the living and the dead.

Advent has always been a time of anticipation, and many traditions grew up around Advent over the centuries, helping to anticipate the first coming of the Savior as well as the second. Advent carols were sung, the Advent wreath was laid on the dining room table, and its candles were lit as each Sunday in Advent came. More recently, in the 20th century, the service of Advent Lessons and Carols became a very popular service coming from St. John’s College in Cambridge, England.

While many of the songs sung at an Advent Lessons and Carols service are not as well known in our age, a few, such as O Come, O Come Emmanuel, are familiar to contemporary America as Christmas carols—yet another borrowing from Advent. The Lessons from Holy Scripture are mostly from the Old Testament about the coming of a Messiah. Interspersed among the lessons are the carols and a few prayers. A choir usually sings a few anthems, as well, and about 45 minutes later, the congregants go home with (one hopes) anticipation for Christmas front in their minds.

Because these traditions and the whole season of Advent has been lost, we tend to celebrate Christmas during Advent, confusing the celebration with the anticipation and also losing out on the celebration of Christmas. Most of us sing about the twelve days of Christmas, but seem a bit lost on where those twelve days have gone. In fact, Christmas begins on December 25th, and doesn’t end until January 5th.

A discussion of the great traditions and celebrations for Christmas season are for another day, but because of the focus on Christmas as a major economic event in our materialistic society, we’ve lost those traditions as well. The tree now comes down on the 26th, the Christmas CDs are put away, and Christmas is over by the 2nd day of Christmas. In fact, it wasn’t too long ago that everyone put up a wreath in December for Advent, and then on Christmas Eve put up a tree for the 12 days of that season and all the parties and celebrations that took place.

Perhaps a recovery of Advent would help us all to have a better mind and heart about the Christmas season. That wouldn’t mean you couldn’t put your tree up before Christmas, but perhaps getting an Advent Wreath up before the tree would be a good reminder. Perhaps an Advent Calendar promoting charity and good deeds each day might help get the children in the right frame of mind. Perhaps learning an Advent carol or two might be helpful as well.

If learning more about Advent interests you, the St. Andrew’s Academy Choir has its annual Advent Lesson and Carols Service on December 10th (7:00 pm, Chester United Methodist Church). Though not quite the St. John’s College Choir, nor the St. John’s College Chapel, the little service at the end of our first term is one of my favorites, and everyone is encouraged to “make a joyful noise” in anticipation of the coming of the Savior.

1 comment:

Heather said...

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