Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, December 21, 2009

Is Advent disappearing?

The Kings College Ceremony of Lessons and Carols is one of the greatest treasures of the Anglican Communion, and justly beloved, but its influence has unintentionally become a problem.

The Episcopal Church throughout all vicissitudes has hung on to Advent. The importance of waiting until Christmas Eve as a rigorous moral and aesthetic discipline of focusing on the darkness of a world without Christ has been a profoundly significant part of our worship and self-understanding. Now, bit by bit, it is being chipped away by--of all things--the Ceremony of Lessons and Carols.

The Kings service in Cambridge is held at exactly the right time: twilight on Christmas Eve. That is the whole point. Bringing the ceremony forward into Advent is having the wrong impact. We are singing "Hodie" ten days before the "today" that the carol celebrates. Even the great and wonderful St Thomas Fifth Avenue is now singing Christmas carols at numerous services over and over throughout this week.

It's true that most Episcopal churches still refrain from decorating till Christmas Eve, and the Sunday morning services still have an Advent flavor, but the traditional emphasis on those ancient "Last Things" is hard to maintain when the great majority of people are flocking to the carol services. The magic and wonder of Christmas Eve is being lost altogether; in many churches the glorious adult "midnight service" has given way to the buzzing confusion of the 5 PM family service. A serious argument can be made in favor of having children's pageants not as an alternative to the Christmas Eve midnight service but a sort of training for it--if the children know there is something adult that they can look forward to when they are older, the true significance of the birth of Christ sinks in more deeply. Many of us older Episcopalians can testify to the power of the midnight service when one has to wait to get old enough to go to it. We have allowed a drift that was probably not intended; the 4 or 5 PM children's services now dominate the church's celebration of the great miracle of Christmas. Surely this has been a mistake.

So consider supporting your church's "midnight" service this year!