Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Losing Advent?

Are we losing Advent? I don't mean the creeping poinsettias, children's Chrismas pageants, and Christmas carols during Advent. I mean something more serious--or, rather, less serious.

I'd heard a rumor that some Episcopal churches were tampering with the lectionary in order to mute the themes of judgment and the end time, but I was hoping it wasn't true. Now, news comes of a way of interpreting the Advent wreath that seems very recently invented. We are to light "the candle of hope," "the candle of peace," "the candle of joy," and "the candle of love" on the four successive Sundays. The non-Anglican pink candle (introduced from the Roman Catholic tradition with little warrant and much confusion) is now being referred to by some Episcopalians, without authority as far as I know, as "Mary's candle."

The four themes of Advent are Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell, in that order (we observed this tradition intermittently in the preaching at Grace Church in New York.) Granted, this version of the Four Last Things dates from the Middle Ages, not the New Testament directly, although the readings for the season certainly warrant it. It is ironic that so much of medieval Christianity is presently revered in the church (including the spurious labyrinth), but not all of it! In particular, the emphasis on judgment that was typical of earlier centuries in the church is now in disfavor. A quick perusal of the texts of older Advent and Christmas hymns show how much the season used to feature the Four Last Things, even if not by that name. We still sing the hymns and carols, for the most part; but we have excised the Four (except for Heaven) from our preaching and teaching.

In a world where multinational corporations are supporting civil war in Africa, where children are sold as sex slaves for "sex tourists," where the American craving for cocaine is fueling the Mexican drug cartels, and on and on, there is a lot of hell and a need for a lot of judgment. And "the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God" (I Peter 4:17).