One of the occupational hazards of being a pastor is that you get invited to (and thus feel obligated to attend) events that you’d really rather not go to. Then, because you’ve been trained to think critically and theologically about everything, you spend time wondering about what your presence at the event says. Will people see my presence here as an endorsement of this event? How will they interpret my facial expressions, body language, etc.? Should I wear a collar? (Yes, seminary teaches us to be neurotic, if we’re not already neurotic when we get there.) It’s an awful lot of mental work, when the truth is you’d probably rather be parked on your couch watching football on TV or silly cat videos on the interwebs.
I received such an invitation last week to an event that was held yesterday evening in a neighboring congregation. Now, the thing is, for most pastors, Sunday afternoon/evening is the worst possible time to schedule anything. It may not look like it (since most worship services are about as exciting as competitive grass-growing), but we are ON all morning on Sundays. I mean, we are rockstar ON. Given the amount of energy Sunday morning requires, and given that a lot of us are actually introverts by nature, by about 1 p.m. on Sunday, we are the human equivalents of limp dishrags. The reason I was less than jazzed about going to this event, however, was not a matter of timing, at least not in that sense. The event was called “Yule Sing”, and consisted of singing secular Christmas songs in the fellowship hall, a light supper, and then singing Christmas hymns in the sanctuary.
Christmas hymns! On the 1st Sunday of Advent! The ultimate no-no for liturgical Christians! We have to fight the cultural rush to Christmas and maintain the integrity of the season of Advent! It’s not time for “Away in a Manger”; we haven’t even sung “On Jordan’s Banks the Baptist’s Cry” yet! We can’t offer “Joy to the World” until we’ve finished “Comfort, Comfort Now My People”, and if the people aren’t comfortable with that, we’ll beat them over the head with it until they are! If you sing Christmas songs on the 1st Sunday of Advent, the terrorists win!
Now, you may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. I follow a lot of churches, church related institutions and church related pages on Facebook, and they’ve all been going hammer and tongs to get people ready for Advent for a number of weeks now. (Perhaps next year we’ll have people trying to defend the Season after Pentecost from the encroachment of Advent.) I’ve also had three different conversations in the last few weeks where laypeople (from different congregations) related stories of being “forbidden” by (three different) pastors to sing Christmas hymns or decorate the sanctuary too early. So, you can understand why I spent a good part of the “Yule Sing” event waiting for the liturgical police to break down the doors and arrest everyone.
The thing is, though, that didn’t happen. What happened was joy. What happened was community, truly organic intergenerational community. What happened was laughter, and relationship building, and expectant hope. In short, Advent happened, even as we sat in a sanctuary already decorated for Christmas and sang from the pages of the hymnal with “CHRISTMAS” in tiny letters at the top.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I love the rhythm of the liturgical calendar, and I’m grateful that we won’t be singing “Silent Night” in the congregation I serve until December 24th. I think the season of Advent has something to say to us, something our souls need to hear. Unfortunately, though, too many folks haven’t heard that message of Advent; what they’ve heard are church professionals shouting “NO!” to Christmas carols and evergreen garlands from the backs of their liturgically-correct high horses. The problem, of course, is that high horses very easily morph into golden calves, and we can turn Advent into an idol just as easily as we can anything else.
Perhaps the way to help folks “honor” Advent isn’t to define it in terms of what we’re against, but to define it in terms of what we are for. Better yet, perhaps the way to help folks “honor” Advent is to model what Advent is supposed to be about. Hope. Joy. Peace. Love. Expectation. If the Advent season is supposed to be about preparing anew for the coming of Christ, who set aside his glory to get down on our level, maybe the best way to model Advent is to get down off of our high horses and really understand (not assume) what those “trappings of Christmas” mean to people. If Advent is a time to hear again John the Baptist’s call to repentance, maybe we church professionals need to repent some of our thoughts, words and deeds with respect to the season. After all, there is nothing more attractive than the power of a good example.