Saturday, December 24, 2011

Liturgical Musings

The secular world has this annoying way of celebrating a holiday for several weeks leading up to the actual day, and then when the day is done so is the celebration. We play Christmas music on the radio from Thanksgiving until December 25, but on the 26th we’re so sick of it that we go back to regular programming. We buy Easter candy for the month or so leading up to Easter Sunday, but as soon as Easter Monday comes, the candy is on clearance, the dresses are forgotten in the closet, and the eggs are all put away for next year.

The problem with this phenomenon is that it is just the opposite of the way the kalendar is supposed to work.

As we have previously discussed, Advent is a season in its own right, not pre-Christmas. It would be silly to sing Christmas carols during Advent, just as it would be silly to sing them during Lent or on Pentecost. But since the entire nation is doing just that, we can feel a bit left out. So what do we do about it?

What we often fail to realize is that Christmas is a season that is twelve days long. Remember the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? That’s what it’s talking about. Christmas begins at sundown on December 24th (Christmas Eve, so named because Christmas begins in the evening) and lasts until the evening of January 5th. Epiphany is a separate but related holiday celebrated on January 6th.

Why does Christmas start on the evening of the 24th? This is an ancient custom, and it has roots in the Biblical account of the creation in Genesis chapter 1. Over and over again it says that “the evening and the morning were the first day”. The Jews quickly adopted this pattern, and to this day the Sabbath begins on Friday evening at sundown and lasts until Saturday evening at sundown. Since the first Christians were Jews, it would make sense that they would adopt their own worship practices. The only difference is that since Jesus was resurrected on the first day of the week, Christians began worshiping on the day of the resurrection – the Lord’s Day.

At church, the colors go from the somber purple or royal blue to white, the color of celebration. This is when we should begin the Christmas music. My favorite Christmas carol is sung every year at the beginning of the Nine Lessons and Carols service at Kings College, Cambridge. Here’s a clip from 2008:

The interesting thing about the season of Christmas is that the first three days after Christmas Day (assuming they don’t fall on a Sunday) are dedicated to St. Stephen (the first deacon and martyr), St. John the Divine, and the Holy Innocents (the babies that Herod had killed in Bethlehem), respectively. Bishop Will Willimon writes about this:

“The old church calendar, in its wisdom, places immediately after the joyful feast of the Nativity the day of St. Stephen (December 26), first martyr of the Church in Acts and the... story of the bloody massacre of the boy babies. New birth and nativity, the cross and sacrifice get all mixed up in the gospel. When will we ever learn that nothing truly new, no large move of God occurs without some pain? Blood and birth go together.” (Found here.)

Now, Advent is a penitential season, and through all four weeks we’ve been setting aside our Christmas parties, Christmas music, Christmas decorations, etc., in order to focus on being prepared for Christ’s arrival. But Christmas itself is a celebration! It is the celebration of the incarnation. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14, NKJV). So we’ve been waiting, almost hungrily, to enjoy all the things about Christmas we love, and now we have twelve days to do it in.

Impractical? Not as much as you’d think. Sure, there will be the odd party you need to attend that simply cannot be moved. There are people, Christians even, who will look at you as though you’ve got two heads for just suggesting they wait “until after Christmas” to have a party. But perhaps we should do less conforming to the world and more transforming people’s ideas. Maybe instead of just giving up before we even start we should try explaining what’s actually going on.

What if we were to be adamant about keeping Advent as Advent and Christmas during the actual season? What if we were to educate our churches, our families, and our friends about why we should do this? What if we were to put aside the December full of stress and rich food and gift-buying and plan further ahead to enjoy those things between December 25 and January 5?

As you begin Advent this year, think about ways you can keep Christmas during the season of Christmas, and not let it invade Advent. Think about how you can set aside some fun and good food to enjoy later. Then, when Christmas does arrive, how can you celebrate it more fully? How can you share in the joy of the incarnation and nativity of our Lord?

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