Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On Advent

Over the course of Christian history the Church's calendar has evolved in many and various ways. This fact of history is the preferred excuse for the liturgical antinomians among us to do their own thing in all matters of worship. But this is disingenuous: the change in the Church's calendar, worship, and liturgy have never been a matter of one parish or one pastor doing what it or he favors. Rather, it has been a matter of the people of God acting in concert, together with clergy bound to follow a superior's orders.

So in the Lutheran Reformation the great fathers of that Reformation, Luther, Chemnitz, Andrae, etc., wrote the Church Orders which laid down regulations for worship, calendar, and music in various geographical areas. And that is an example of the very fastest sort of change that has ever happened in the Church's worship. What we have today is something else altogether. It is speed, if you will, but not velocity: change without direction.

In the development and evolution of the Church's worship, calendar, and music there are examples of change being driven from below or from above. It was Pope Sergius, for example, who instigated the singing of the Agnus Dei during the fraction around A+D 690. On the other hand, it was the people who pushed for Trinity Sunday against the desires of the clergy. Eventually the people won out and the clergy accepted Trinity Sunday into the calendar. The piety of the people, once upon a time, also pushed for more strenuous fasting. Thus "Meat Sunday" and "Cheese Sunday" in the East arose from the people but were never accepted by the clergy into "official" Lent, which remained at 6 weeks in length.

Which brings us to our poll. Let's face it: the piety of the people in all Western lands has done away with the penitential nature of Advent and the joyous celebration of the 12 days of Christmas. They begin the Christmas celebration right after the end of the Church year and the end of the celebration comes with Christmas Day.

The only folks who actually live the old calendar (that I know of) are clergy families. It still makes sense for us. Advent is quite busy and we don't have time to do all the extra Christmas stuff. After Christmas, meetings are canceled, school is out, and the 12 days of Christmas make for a delightful time of putting up decorations, making cookies, etc. And even most clergy families would be hard pressed to demonstrate what exactly about their Advent observance indicates penitence. Too many treats show up at the door, too many old ladies serve us fruit cake, too many Thrivent, elders, ladies aid, and Sunday school parties intervene.

If this had been happening several centuries ago perhaps some bishop or some chapter of clergy would have recognized this and changed the calendar and come up with appropriate liturgical expressions of the people's piety. But it's hard to imagine how such a sweeping change could be made today. In some small way the three year lectionary tried to meet the people in the middle with its inclusion of the Visitation or St. Matthew's birth narrative on Advent 4. But even that is quite far behind the people's piety which broke out the creche around St. Andrew's.

Or maybe this is but a fad of piety and will soon pass. Perhaps folks will again find a desire to fast and pray before a great 12 day feast in the bleak midwinter. I shouldn't wonder if the current piety is merely a symptom of overwhelming affluence and economic sophistication. After all, why not give up eggs and butter in the winters of the North in the 14th century? Chicken's don't much lay and cattle milk less then. But if whole swaths of society gave up eggs every winter now, what on earth would become of all of Tyson Food's heated barns full of laying hens?

And in the end, that is the great benefit of all conservatism, especially liturgical conservatism: it acts as a filter, sorting out the wheat from the chaff. We'll have to wait and see what the newfangled Thirty-or-so Days of Christmas will end up being. For now, I recommend plowing ahead with Gloria-less, somber, oddly Gospel lessoned Advent in the midst of that huge Christmas tree that your pious parishioners put up on November 29th.



  1. GREAT post Heath. You summed up my thoughts perfectly on this.

  2. Is there a nuanced answer to the poll "some now, some on Christmas Eve"? That is, there's a tree without decorations, evergreen in the windows, but no flowers or greenery in the chancel.

    Also, hens don't lay much when the days shorten and they begin to molt. And I'll suggest what should happen to the Tyson egg houses, but privately.

  3. Advent also corresponds with the countdown to the NFL playoffs and the BCS bowl season. One thing that does work out well for us is that the church kindly coordinates its Lent with Mardi Gras Week, not to mention that Seafood Fridays during Lent offer the opportunity for some really awesome meal deals at area restaurants that sometimes include extra special desserts. Also, keep in mind that the church should be sensitive to its Lenten timing with regard to March Madness.

  4. Our parish does this in steps. Greens and wreaths up for Advent 1, empty trees Advent 2, decorate the trees Advent 3, creche w/o Holy Family Advent 4, Holy Family Christmas Eve, Magi on Epiphany, decorations down AFTER Epiphany. Not perfect but the idea here is the progression toward Christmas which Advent does in the lectionary displayed visually.

  5. "Advent is quite busy and we don't have time to do all the extra Christmas stuff." This is why our family has whole-heartedly embraced Advent (my husband is not a pastor). It takes a lot of work for this housewife to prepare for Christmas, and home school, and do regular daily stuff, and I find it impossible to do all that AND be festive and celebrate and Christmas-y. I try to encourage my friends (even non-Lutherans) to have their parties after Christmas Day, so I can attend (not out of Grinchiness or legalism, but because I am not Superwoman).

    Are there any good Lutheran resources/articles on fasting out there for laity?

  6. Katy, might be of use:

  7. You're probably right. The power always lies with the people. They get their way in both the secular and the ecclesiastical realm - they just don't usually know it. I hope the actual changes happens after I die. I can imagine the four Sundays of Advent turning to the Annunciation, etc, as "Christmas prep," but I really think it'd be a shame to lose John the Baptist and the eschatological emphasis of Advent. I suppose then that blue would be the right color. I also think that it is good for the Church in our culture to have a markedly different emphasis and celebration at this time of the year. The Americans and Germans have nearly ruined Christmas.


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