Advent “Killjoys”?

by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light now in the time of this mortal life (in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility;) that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

–Thomas Cranmer’s Advent Collect

Advent is controversial. It’s a short season that can raise long hackles, especially among clergy. The Rev’d John Ohmer, Rector of The Falls Church Episcopal in Falls Church, Virginia, recently wrote a blog post with the provocative title, “Advent Purists are well-intentioned Killjoys.” You can find the full post here. I came across it through the Diocese of Connecticut’s monthly “Formation e-Newsletter,” where it was billed as “A commentary on Advent being a joyful, rather than penitential season.”

That billing makes oblique reference to the clerical controversies surrounding Advent. The question is whether Advent should be a mini-Lent—an end-of-year penitential season—or whether it is…something else. In my (admittedly limited) perspective, I have never known an Episcopal parish that made an especially penitential time of Advent. As with so many Very Important Church Discussions, the debate is therefore largely theoretical and almost entirely insular.

But Mr Ohmer’s point, as far as I understood it, goes beyond this superficial controversy. He points out that the Church is missing a golden opportunity to connect the secular Christmas celebration (which begins around Thanksgiving) with its deep Christian roots:

“When we insist on a strict observation of Advent, we are the only people — as Christians – who are NOT talking about Christmas and singing ‘Christmas’ hymns* at the exact time when we have the culture’s fullest attention. Combine that with the often-accompanying self-righteous attitude of ‘oh come on, it’s not Christmas yet!’ and we come across as little more than dour, frowning, spoil-sports. And that is, at the very least, bad evangelism.”

His solution to this predicament is a thorough re-branding of the Advent season. Throw out the “dowdy…frumpy…hopelessly out of touch” attitude that refuses to hear the great Christmas stories before Christmastide. Loosen those “haughty” strictures about not singing Christmas Carols before Christmas Eve. Downplay the Second Coming, and change the narrative—quite literally. As Mr Ohmer puts it:

“What the lessons and sermons during this season ought to anticipate is Christmas: the “first coming” or incarnation of Jesus, and not (as most of the lessons appointed in the Lectionary and as some Advent hymns would have us concentrate on) the second coming, or return, of Christ.” [Emphases in the original.]

And a little later on:

“I’m convinced that Advent should be a time that joyfully anticipates Christmas.” [Emphasis in the original.]

And why should we make this shift? Apart from the desire to appear as something other than “dour, frowning, spoil-sports,” Mr Ohmer insists that the cultural moment demands a new kind of Advent:

“Emphasizing the “second coming” might have been appropriate in an age of Christendom, when people in the general culture had an understanding of Christianity.  Now days, at least in the Northern Virginia region culture, preachers/churches have enough of a challenge attempting to tie what the wider culture celebrates as “the holidays” to the specific Christian holy day called “Christmas,” not to mention the challenge of reminding people (or informing them!) that the day called “Christmas” is about a celebration of the birth of Jesus (i.e., is not only about gifts).”

That paragraph makes it very plain that Mr Ohmer’s motives are pure, his purposes are honorable, and his heart is in the right place. It also convinces me that, as far as his thoughts on the Season of Advent are concerned, he is completely, unequivocally, and absolutely wrong.

It’s true that the Church’s insistence on Advent as a time to look for, pray for, and prepare for the Second Coming of Christ is profoundly out-of-step with the expectations and practices of our culture. But that is Advent’s chief virtue.

I listen very carefully to the things my parishioners say this time of year. The loudest note I hear is not one of joy, or excitement, or anticipation for “the specific Christian holy day called ‘Christmas.'” It is one of weariness, exhaustion, and exasperation with the unforgiving demands of an insatiable commercial culture. My people know what Christmas is about, and they want to celebrate it. But for nearly the entire month of December they find themselves trapped in the Christmas-industrial complex. They want to get out, but they don’t know how.

The Church’s solution to this problem cannot be to begin to celebrate Christmas earlier—or “to joyfully anticipate Christmas” without celebrating it, whatever that means. Our people don’t need more Christmas. Our culture will not be reached by valiant efforts to connect the orgy of gift-giving with the babe in the manger and the magi at the door. As if we could drown-out (or make holy) the sounds of “Rudolph” and “Frosty the Snowman” by bawling “Hark the herald angels sing” and “O Come, all ye faithful” on December 1st! We cannot piggy-back on the secular celebration of Christmas. Secular Christmas serves a master called Mammon—money, stuff—and Jesus tells us quite plainly “You cannot serve God and mammon.”

What we can do—what the wisdom of centuries calls us to do—what the witness of Scripture urges us to do—is to join our voices with “the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord!” God, who came once in great humility, will come again in glorious majesty. God will come with judgment. God will come with justice. That is the message our people need. That is the message of freedom in a time of obligations, expectations, and general lunacy. That is the announcement that cuts through the accretions around our secular Christmas, and actually makes it possible for our parishioners to celebrate with joy the mystery of the Incarnation.

But what about those outside the Church? Mr Ohmer’s concern, after all, is that we should be better evangelists. Our own people might know something about the true meaning of Advent and Christmas: What about the unchurched man or woman who reads a sign saying “Advent Lessons and Carols” on December 1, wanders innocently into one of our churches, sits down in one of our uncomfortable pews, and then, instead of hearing the expected story about the baby and singing the same happy carols that Bing Crosby croons over the mall loud-speaker, is accosted with strange prophetic pronouncements about deserts blooming and stars falling, and is forced to join in on hard-to-sing carols that solemnly command “Sleepers wake!”? Shouldn’t we change Advent for the folks who happen upon us this time of year? After all, what’s a newcomer supposed to do with John the Baptist?

Have we considered that that is precisely the right question to ask? What is a newcomer to do with John the Baptist? What are we to do with John the Baptist? How do we receive and share a Gospel that is not trying to be relevant, or hip, or in-tune with our culture, but that announces, plainly and unapologetically: God is coming! Do we dare try to shield our visitors and newcomers from that message?

I find it bewildering that Mr Ohmer should claim that “the end of Christendom” (a very au courant rationale for changing things in the Church) necessitates a shift away from an Advent focused on the Second Coming of Christ. Have we forgotten that the early Christians went out to evangelize their world armed with a message, not about the Incarnation of Jesus, but about the crucifixion, resurrection, and Second Coming of Jesus? Have we forgotten that the announcement of God’s coming judgment is Gospel, Good News, for a world still marred by sin and strife?

People are not saved by a dot-connecting lecture about how St Nicholas is the real inspiration for Santa Claus. People are not saved by a witty, relevant sermon explaining that we are all joyful and expectant just as Mary was joyful and expectant. People are saved by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the life and proclamation of the Church. People are saved by the Living Word whom we announce—our duty and our privilege. People are saved by the God who has, in the person of Jesus Christ, intervened decisively in this world, who is at work in it still, and who will—Maranatha!—come again to put an end to sorrow and sin.

Are Advent purists “well-intentioned killjoys”? Perhaps some are. But what the Church needs is a recovery of the true meaning and message of Advent, not a rebranding campaign. May we have the courage, in the few days of Advent that remain, to follow the Spirit’s prompting out into the wilderness, to look fearlessly and unsentimentally at our own lives and at our crazed culture, and to proclaim with John the Baptist the great Good News of Advent: “Behold! The Kingdom of God is at hand!”