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Advent & Christmas…the same thing?

December 23, 2010

In our worship planning in my congregation we try to follow the Church Year fairly close. Following the Church Year is still kind of a new thing for some Mennonite congregations, though internally we do have some good resources for guiding worship and good leaders helping us expand our worship imaginations. A main reason for our use of the Church Year is spiritual formation: our worship planning team believes that we can benefit from applying the rhythms and message of God’s Story to our lives. I’m so glad to see their interest in how liturgy can help form us as God’s people. And it has been particularly wonderful to see members of the congregation use their gifts to help create worship stations which allow for greater congregational participation in worship (one of our members, an artist, drew a huge hourglass during our first Advent service that we are using as a prayer station).

But not everyone in the congregation is always on-board with this practice. There is a question we hear every year during Advent: “Why don’t we sing more Christmas songs?” It’s not mentioned as a complaint. But it is sometimes presented as if Advent liturgy is too restrictive and takes away one’s Christmas buzz. Now I’m not against singing Christmas songs-far from it! I love singing Christmas songs and carols and have many favorites. But there are also excellent Advent songs which help tell the story of this season of expectant waiting for Christ. For the Advent season to truly be a formational tool and make sense to those newer to the faith, I tend to encourage use of these Advent songs as part of our worship planning. But as this question about the songs is an annual one, I’ve done some thinking about it and an illustration emerged concerning Advent and Christmas worship.

What if on December 12, children looked at the gifts under the Christmas tree and decided to approach their parents and say, “We want our presents now.” Most parents would say “No. We wait until Christmas Day to open our gifts” (let’s assume they are finished shopping and gifts are under the tree). As a kid I pestered my parents about this almost every year, until their advice that “It’s more special if you wait” finally sunk in. Could our waiting to sing Christmas songs be similar to our waiting to open Christmas gifts? Could these songs/worship times be even more meaningful-and help us understand the Story of the Incarnation in a deeper way-simply because we waited for them? While this certainly isn’t a perfect argument, I do think there’s something to be said for waiting.

I believe one reason for the requests to sing Christmas songs is a response to our culture: radio stations have been playing Christmas music 24/7 since Black Friday, and TV stations have been showing Christmas movies constantly for the last month. And many folks are unfamiliar with our religious practices and their purpose anyway. So I can see why some would ask “Why can’t we sing Christmas songs in Advent?” I get it. I’m just hesitant to give up on the rhythm of the Church Year, and what Advent and Christmas seasons can teach us about Christ and God’s Mission. Without being legalistic about it, I would like to discover creative ways to let God’s Story set our pace rather than our culture, and I think an ancient practice like the Church Year could help.

Does it matter how we celebrate Advent and Christmas? Does merging the two together change the impact/meaning of either?

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