Monday, December 05, 2011

The Length of Advent

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 4


ADVENT 5

The sign at the entrance to my suburban Episcopal parish might well have puzzled visitors. Advent 5? There are only four Sundays in Advent...and three more weeks to go until Christmas. What gives?

Advent, for readers not cued in to the liturgical tradition, is the first "season" of the Christian year; for most Christians, Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. It is a time of introspection, waiting and preparation. As "Retail Christmas" now starts earlier and earlier and becomes an increasingly cheap orgy of gaudy materialism having essentially nothing to do with Jesus at all, Christians are finding renewed meaning in Advent. The Christmas "season" in American culture, which begins to appear in stores by mid-November at the latest and explodes on Thanksgiving weekend in a flurry of print and TV ads and the media frenzy of "Black Friday" shopping, has become an extended period of stress and chaos, so that by December 25 we are exhausted and bored and sick of it all.

The frustration with the way Christmas has been robbed of its joy and beauty and co-opted for the glory of the Dollar Almighty (and become a tedious culture-war touchstone for the fundamentalists) has led many Christians to reconnect with the traditions of Advent, and some are advocating expanding the season to seven Sundays instead of four. The Eastern Orthodox Church has long celebrated Advent for the 40 days prior to Christmas, just as Lent is the 40 days prior to Easter. Our parish is one of several around the country experimenting with a longer Advent this year.

I was skeptical at first, but my priest is a very wise (and liturgically generally very conservative) man and I wanted to be open-minded; I also believe the church does itself no favors with blind adherence to tradition. In explaining his decision to give this a try, the priest pointed out that the lectionary (the three-year cycle of Bible lessons appointed for Sunday worship) already begins pointing to Advent themes in November, and gave voice to the kind of inchoate general Christian sense of helplessness in the face of Retail Christmas by making a bigger deal out of Advent.

Without heading off into a complicated tangent about the Christian calendar (which I could easily, passionately do), let me just point out that the calendar is meant to be cyclical, not linear. We don't "number" our years, and we don't celebrate a "New Year's Eve" when Pentecost passes into Advent again. In figuring out that "lectionary" system for appointed readings for various holidays and seasons of the Christian year, the ancient church drew a parallel between the coming of Christ into the world as a newborn at Christmas and the anticipated second coming at the end of time. And so, while it may seem ironic and incongruous in the weeks leading up to Christmas at the beginning of the year, the worship directs our attention to the End.

This was the angle that most piqued my interest; not only am I in favor of Christians standing up and telling the world to slow the heck down before Christmas because they are really missing the point, the crazy eschatology (theology of the "end times") of some of our fundamentalist brethren has so dominated the popular imagination that the orthodox understanding of the Second Coming has been almost entirely eclipsed. Complicated timelines and checklists for identifying "the Antichrist" and predicting the Second Coming are so common that even wild-eyed crackpots like Harold Camping can make international news by predicting -- as he did twice this year -- the "precise" date of the End of the World. (He was, not surprisingly, wrong both times, and made himself and every other Christian look like fools in the process.) So, yes: the mainline churches standing up to counter the perversions of fundamentalist eschatology and reclaim Christmas from Wall Street? Count me in!

In practice, however, this experiment has been disappointing. I think, frankly, that my beloved priest overestimated the cultural impact of bringing out the blue altar cloths three weeks early.

Instead of feeling like a counter-action to the ever-earlier creep of Retail Christmas, starting Advent early seemed like surrender. And while we dutifully sang the traditional Advent hymns like, "Sleepers, Wake!" and read the appointed lessons full of warning, that seemed all we were able to muster. Granted, we still have two Sundays of Advent left so maybe I should not throw the manger out with the four-candle Advent wreath, but so far this process has not deepened in me a greater awareness of or appreciation for eschatology or supported my interest in a truly counter-cultural Advent. We have had no fiery sermons on the end-times texts or passionate calls to resist secular culture's idea of Christmas. We've not had any meaningful parish activities to further either goal. It's been Advent just like every other year, except longer. And no wreath.

Ultimately, I don't think I'm going to come down on one side or another as to how long Advent should be. The folks who support an expanded Advent have the right idea, and I am completely, totally and utterly in favor of making a much bigger deal out of Advent. But I'm also afraid my initial misgivings were correct: if you want to do Advent better, you have to really do it better, not just longer.

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