Author Topic: The Grinch Who Stole Advent  (Read 4075 times)

Richard Johnson

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The Grinch Who Stole Advent
« on: October 17, 2006, 10:31:49 PM »
By Rev. Richard J. Serina, Jr.

Just six months into my initial call, the congregation and I had our first major dispute over the most contentious and disagreeable of topics: When we should put up the congregational Christmas tree.

The congregation typically does so around the Thanksgiving weekend, but I suggested we put it of a little longer since, after all, it is a Christmas tree and not an Advent tree. I went on to explain the distinction between Advent and Christmas, the celebration of the twelve days of Christmas between the Nativity of Our Lord and the Epiphany of Our Lord, and the sense of penitence and remorse for sins that historically accompanies the Advent season.

In doing so, however, I had become the Grinch: I was stealing the joy of Christmas.

Changing Colors, Changing Meanings

Maybe I should blame all of this on the liturgical color revisions spearheaded by the Anglo-Catholics and taken from their Sarum Rite, for when they popularized changing the color of Advent from violet to blue, they allowed a shift from the more traditional medieval (and hence Lutheran) emphasis upon contrition for sins to the more ancient and patristic emphasis upon the expectation of Jesus’ coming.

The stated reason for the revision of color in the Advent season, of course, was to underscore the sense of hopefulness and anticipation with which the Prophets of Israel awaited the first Advent and so too should we eagerly await the return of Our Lord promised at His Ascension and confessed in the creeds. This is not a bad thing of course and no doubt Lutherans of all people should welcome such a dual sense of hopefulness and anticipation.

But that shift away from contrition to expectation, when combined with the festivity of the marketplace in the late fall months and the rampant commercialism of the season, leads good parishioners to misidentify Advent with the celebration of Jesus’ birth and not the patient, reflective wait for the coming Messiah of Israel. The hopeful tone of Advent melds together with the exclamatory tone of Christmas, ringing no different to the ear and seeming no less congruent than O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing do on a Christmas CD found in the bargain bin at Wal-Mart. 

Indelible Impressions of Color and Season

What is lost, then, by removing the penitential character of the Advent season? It’s not so much that this penitential character can’t be taught, but rather that the surreptitious features of the church’s public worship lose some of their imbued vitality. While teaching a Bible class during seminary, I got to know a Roman Catholic convert who had married a member of our church and was confirmed as a Lutheran. He loved to tell a particular story about how he chose a college upon leaving active duty in the Air Force: the young fellow who originally hailed from Syracuse scoured the nation for possible educational destinations, but finally landed at Texas Christian University. And why Texas Christian? Because their school color was purple, like the Advent and Lenten colors of his Roman Catholic youth.

Indeed, he would later admit, the school colors reminded him of the violet used in Advent and Lent, a color that symbolized a period of repentance and mortification of the flesh, a color that epitomized a sense of solicitude for and reflection upon sins. The color of those seasons and their attendant disciplines made such an impression upon this young boy that it even determined where he might matriculate for college.

The point is simple: The power of color, season, and symbol to impress certain ideas and attitudes upon churches of the historic Christian calendar is something that cannot and should not be altered, replaced, or eliminated without careful attention to the consequences of such changes. Thus, once the observance of Advent shifted from its traditionally penitential character to a more anticipatory tone, it should come as no surprise that the season is now almost indistinguishable from the cultural celebration of capitalistic Christmastide that spans from Thanksgiving Day through the twenty-fifth of December.

Of Grinches, Christmas Trees, and Other Adiaphora

But of course, this brings us back to the same issue so divisive since the Interims of 1548: the Lutheran principle of adiaphora. The color of vestments and paraments, the seasons and dates of the church calendar, and the occasion when a Christmas tree is erected in the nave are not of salvific importance nor should they be forced upon Christian consciences as articles of faith, but are rather matters regulated by evangelical freedom.
For that reason, my congregation and I reached a compromise that will allow us to put up the Christmas tree on the third Sunday in Advent. Still, have we lost something in the process? In the quest for liturgical flexibility, have we forfeited the catholic assumptions so deeply embedded in our catholic practices? Be it in dispensing with the traditional color of Advent or capitulating to the forces of greed and commercialism that force our historic understanding of the Christian calendar into conformity with various shopping seasons, we have lost some of the penitential character that so marked the liturgical remembrance of God’s coming to us in Christ to give His life unto death for the forgiveness of all our sins.

We lose something if our churches do not recall the Law present in our traditional Advent texts, that it was our sins which led Our Lord into Jerusalem and to his death, that we must stave off false prophets and teachers in our midst who speak ill of the Christ in these latter days, that St. John the Baptist came preaching a repentance of sins in preparing the way for his Lord and ours, and that Mary’s Magnificat is as cautionary as it is hopeful, as much about the God of Israel’s judgment upon the proud and the rich, the wicked and the unfaithful, as it is about God’s own mercy and kindness to us in Christ.

And so Advent, though its celebration be an adiaphoron and though its penitential character recede into the background with the ebb of recent liturgical revisions, nonetheless remains a benefit to the people who
gather in the name of Jesus, even Lutherans who “cherish the useful and ancient ordinances, especially when they contain a discipline by which it is profitable to educate and teach common folk and ignorant” that “by instruction they might transmit to posterity the memory of these important events” (Kolb/Wengert, Apology 180.33; 181.40). 

Let not the principle of adiaphora be the Grinch that steals your penitential Advent worship this year.

Pr. Serina is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Albany, TX. This is his first contribution to Forum Online.

Copyright 2006 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: October 17, 2006, 10:33:27 PM by Richard Johnson »
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

J. Thomas Shelley

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Re: The Grinch Who Stole Advent
« Reply #1 on: October 17, 2006, 11:29:57 PM »
I must confess to having contributed mightily to demise of penitential Advent by having introduced blue paraments in every parish that I have served; yet I must also confess a dislike for the artificial dichotomy that some liturgical purists have attempted to establish between Advent and Christmas.  For many parishes, this dichotomy will reach a ridiculous extreme in this coming Advent when following the Fourth Sunday in Advent liturgy on Sunday December 24 decorating committees will work themselves into exhaustion to place and decorate trees in the few hours between Sunday worship and Christmas Eve liturgies.

The proper paradigm for these seasons, methinks, is the Advent wreath--a gradual increase of light and its attendant joy and festivity as the Advent season progresses.  The light of a single candle makes scant assualt against darkness; so, on Advent 1, the lessons prepare us for the parousia.  Pentitential hymns, an absence of decoration save for the Advent wreath, and use of one of the litanies seems the correct  liturgical interpretation of the pericopes; and likewise, for Advent 2.

But the key to recovery of Advent from both the "happy-clappy" let's-start-celebrating-Christmas-at-Thanksgiving AND the let's-keep-all-referencecs-to-Christmas-out -of-Advent Grinches is a proper appreciation and restoration of Gaudete Sunday.  This turning point in a season of increasing light deserves greater recognition than a pink candle.

In my congregation, Gaudete is the Sunday of tranformation.  Beginning with youngsters carrying  animals and shepherds to the Creche stable, continuing with children displaying and placing lovely Chrismon ornaments on the trees, through an extended Offertory procession bringing greens, holly, ivy, stars and bells into the Sanctuary, the Hanging of the Greens service is truly a Festival.  The worship space begins with an empty stable and bare, unlighted trees.  It ends  with appropriate figures at the stable (the others then appearing on distant window ledges) and trees that are at least partially decorated.

Five years ago, Gaudete was marred--mid liturgy, no less-- by the news of the unexpected death of one of the oldest women of the congregation; news compounded by their children announcing "we're not making any arrangements yet because Dad only has a couple of hours also".   The double Requiem was held on Friday of Gaudete week; the packed church fulfilled the couple's oft expressed wish that "a lot of folks could see how beautiful this place is at Christmas".  The memorial contributions received for them enabled the purchase of rose paraments and vestments for Gaudete (and Laetare).

Is this a reasonable compromise?  If one were to ask the Grinches at either extreme, the answer would be resoundingly "NO".  But on Sunday December 24 I will not sing Christmas carols in the morning....and I will get a long winter's nap in the afternoon.  That seems reasonable to me.
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Re: The Grinch Who Stole Advent
« Reply #2 on: October 17, 2006, 11:43:47 PM »
Chesterton said that it was essential to Christmas to be sudden, a sharp break from advent. It had to burst on the scene like the angels to the shepherds. Fine, but, like a lot of good disciplines, almost impossible from a practical perspective. One creative compromise we came up with (in a situation much like Richard's-- congregation used to Christmas starting at Thanksgiving, pastors and music director duly grinchy) relates to the manger scene we have. Our congregation has a very impressive set of large, Italian-crafted figurines, each donated with memorial funds. So far (and it is about all we have room for) we have Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Gabriel, two shepherds and a little lamb (donated in memory of my stillborn daughter Eva Marie in 2001). The congregation thinks it waste to have such exquisite figurines on display only for the Christmas season (which is true; they really are exquisite IMHO) but it just doesn't work to have them up all advent long. What we discovered is that the Angel, which is supposed to hover over the manger, and the Mary, looking down at the baby, actually, when rearranged facing each other and with none of the others up there, look like they were created specifically to portray the Annunciation, with the Gabriel speaking to her and Mary humbly declaring herself to be the Lord's servant. So for at least one week of advent, the figurines (at least some of them) are on display, but it is an entirely adventy display as well.

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Re: The Grinch Who Stole Advent
« Reply #3 on: October 18, 2006, 09:31:01 AM »
When and how to make the transition from Advent to Christmas is a problem in every congregation.  Here we put up the Christmas tree following the worship on Advent 3, so that it is in place for the Sunday School Christmas program which is held the evening of Advent 3.

But however one deals with this issue, Pr. Serina is incorrect if he thinks it all started with the switch to blue.  Those of us who've been around long enough know this has been an issue since 'way before the advent (pun intended) of the LBW.

And I'm all in favor of the blue switch and the renewed emphasis on Advent in the LBW, because it finally got Lutherans to pay some attention to eschatology and the 2nd coming.

Peace to all.  It's only 10 weeks till Christmas.
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Re: The Grinch Who Stole Advent
« Reply #4 on: October 18, 2006, 10:09:07 AM »
Repentance should not be the result of a change in color or be abrogated because of the presence of a Christmas Tree. Repentance should be one's response to the love and grace of God given to us in Christ as proclaimed in the Gospels. What color or symbol can trump that?  In the Orthodox Church the Christmas Tree is a recent adaptation (in America at least) from the West with no clear rubric on its display. In our parish, the tree goes up just before Saint Nicholas Day (December 6) and comes down just before Theophany (The Adoration of the Magi is observed on December 25).  FWIW, although liturgical colors, as such, are something the Russians borrowed from the West, the color in Advent is red and not purple or blue (purple is reserved exclusively for Great Lent and blue for feasts of the Virgin Mary).

My two-cents,
Fr. Bob


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Re: The Grinch Who Stole Advent
« Reply #5 on: October 18, 2006, 11:26:58 AM »
I asked all my shut-ins during my Advent visits about their family Christmas rituals.  I was amazed at how similiar they were.   The parents would get a tree and decorate it, for most candles were the lighting.   They would also gather together the gifts for the children which did not consist of the usual popular toy advertised on radio(no t.v. at the time)  The gifts would usually consist of fresh fruits like apples and oranges, a rare treat my folks would tell me.  The smell would permeate the house.  But the room itself was locked; the children were not allowed to see the tree, and they did not participate in its decoration.  The room was finally opened on Christmas Eve  after they returned from the candlelight service.   Talk about living in anticipation.  That's Advent!


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Re: The Grinch Who Stole Advent
« Reply #6 on: October 18, 2006, 01:42:44 PM »
I understand the battles.  Here, we have a progression of "greening" in the church.

Following the Thanksgiving worship (or CTK, if we don't host the community service), we install the Advent wreath (a huge brass monstrosity <ugh>) and four large wreaths that line the sides of the sanctuary.  Why do we do this? Becuase there are people here who actually like climbing the tall ladders to put them up.

After Advent III, we have the "greening of the church" event, with everyone pitching in to hang garland, erect the tree, etc.  We have some kind of communal meal (ofter a soup and chili cookoff), and then end the day with Vespers.

It works well for us