Friday, 7 November 2014

Advent is not Lent. (I'll repeat that. It's important.) Advent is NOT Lent!

If I said one thing to you about worship in Advent, it would be this:  

Advent is not Lent.

I’ll repeat this.  It’s important.

Advent is NOT Lent.

During Advent, the Christian church progressively “grows into” the brightness of the Christmas celebration.  The trajectory of Advent moves in the direction of Christmas.  The visual image here is the Advent wreath, on which an additional candle is lit each Sunday of Advent:  one on the first Sunday, two on the second, ... and so on.  The light of Advent grows, until it is absorbed into the light of Christmas.

In contrast, Lent moves in the direction, not of Easter, but of Good Friday.  Throughout Lent, we move deeper and deeper into the shadow of the Cross.  Easter comes afterwards, not as part of the basic trajectory of Lent, but as God’s great reversal of the pain of the Cross.  The basic inner logic of Lent leads to Good Friday, with Easter following as God’s great Reversal, as God’s great vindication of the Crucified One.  There is a marked discontinuity between Lent and Easter.

The relationship of Advent with Christmas is radically different from the relationship of Lent with Easter.  The discontinuity is not there.  Advent flows organically into Christmas.

As a result, any attempt to remake Advent as a penitential season in the image of Lent is incompetent liturgy.

Some things which make perfect liturgical sense in Lent which, when transposed into Advent, become faintly ridiculous.

For example, the hymns of Lent/Holy Week and the hymns of Easter do not overlap.  It makes no sense liturgically to sing Resurrection-related hymns on Good Friday (or earlier in Lent/Holy Week).  Neither does it make sense to sing Crucifixion-related hymns on Easter Day (or later in the Easter season).  When we begin to sing “Christ the Lord is risen today” or “Yours be the glory”, we’ve already put “O sacred head sore wounded” and “When I survey the wondrous cross” to rest at least until the following Lent.

My “liturgical fundamentalist” friends will not be happy when I say this, but I believe that one of the ways the Church “grows into” Christmas during Advent is in our music during worship.  The hymns of Advent and the hymns of Christmas should be able to co-exist for much of Advent, with a growing use of specifically Christmas music each Sunday, just as we light more candles on our Advent wreaths.

For example, in a congregation that sings four hymns in worship on a typical Sunday,
·        On the First Sunday of Advent, it’s appropriate to sing four Advent hymns and no Christmas hymns.
·        On the Second Sunday of Advent, it’s appropriate to sing three Advent hymns and one Christmas hymn.
·        On the Third Sunday of Advent, it’s appropriate to sing two Advent hymns and two Christmas hymns.
·        On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, it’s appropriate to sing one Advent hymn and three Christmas hymns.

Of course, this pattern may be interrupted in some congregations because, on one or more of the Sundays in Advent, the worship service is taken over for a children’s Christmas pageant, a youth group musical, or the Sunday School’s annual extravaganza.  Nevertheless, the idea of Advent being a time of “growing into” Christmas is still useful in a congregation whose Advent involves only three functional worshipping Sundays.

And, in the words with which I began this post, if I said one thing to you about worship in Advent, it would be this:  

Advent is NOT Lent.

And, if you'd like some of my reflections on Advent and Christmas sitting on your bookshelf as well as on your computer, you may want to buy my book  Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained from Amazon.

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