The Practice of Advent

The second Sunday of Advent.

As I mentioned last year, during Advent I notice a lot of blog posts, Facebook updates and Twitter tweets lamenting how people are singing Christmas carols during Advent.

Yes, there are Advent snobs.

But the point is well taken, and one that I've only just recently come to appreciate. Because I didn't grow up in a liturgical tradition I never learned to note or appreciate the distinction between Advent and Christmas. It was all just Christmas to me.

But the distinction is this. Advent is a time of expectation, a season of waiting and anticipation. Christmas is a time of celebration and rejoicing for the gift that is given.

In liturgical time during the season of Advent Christ isn't yet born. During Advent we are looking forward, anticipating, longing for, and waiting for the birth of Immanuel. So an Advent song would be O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel
One of the reasons evangelicals struggle with practicing Advent is because they don't live with the liturgical calender. Consequently, evangelicals don't go to church on Christmas (unless it fortuitously falls on a Sunday). Nor do they celebrate the twelve days of the Christmas season, celebrating the Christ-child from the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas day) to Epiphany (the visitation of the wise men).

What this means is that evangelicals have no place to sing Christmas songs. They won't be in church on Christmas. Nor do they celebrate Christmas past December 25th, passing on twelve days--the proper days--of singing Christmas carols. Which means the only time evangelicals can corporately sing Christmas songs are on the Sundays of Advent.

And this goes even for liturgically minded evangelicals. If you don't gather on Christmas day you are forced to sing Christmas songs during Advent.

Consequently, because they sing Christmas carols during Advent most evangelicals only know one Advent song: O Come, O Come  Emmanuel. Past that song they draw a blank. (Some might know two songs, with Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus coming in a distant second.)

All of which exacerbates the already strong tendency among evangelicals to rush to the happy ending, their temptation toward an over-realized and triumphalistic eschatology. Structurally, evangelicals are forced to sing Christmas songs during Advent. So even when they try to celebrate Advent the practice is impoverished. Plus, generally knowing only one Advent song, evangelicals are faced with the prospect of singing O Come, O Come  Emmanuel over and over and over. Evangelicals wanting to celebrate Advent just don't have the hymnody to pull it off. They will need to learn some new songs.

And learn they should.

Because advent is a groaning, the time of being in exile and longing for liberation. In this Advent is to Christmas as Lent is to Easter.

This is the experience I wrote about this week in the post Advent: A Prison Story.

Consequently, those Advent snobs are not being snobby at all. They are making an important point. In our rushing to the Happy Ending, by singing those Christmas carols too quickly, we fail to practice the waiting and the lament of Advent.

Advent is being the slave in Egypt, sitting with the experience of exile. Advent is about looking for God and hoping for God in a situation where God's promises are outstanding and yet to be fulfilled.

Rushing through Advent to get to Christmas is like rushing past Good Friday to get to Easter.

Waiting for God and enduring the pain of that waiting is a spiritual discipline. Advent is a time to cultivate that discipline. A time to chasten the rush to happy endings in our spiritual lives.

We must learn and attend to the practices of Advent.

And maybe then we'll be ready for Christmas.

All twelve days of it.

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9 thoughts on “The Practice of Advent”

  1. Come to Christmas Vespers tonight at 7:30 p.m. We will all be singing "O Come O Come" together.

  2. Have you heard the Brilliance? They were at Summit this fall. They have 3 Advent albums which will keep my ears busy until Christmas. (They also have a Lent album.)

  3. Huge fans. We saw them in Dallas over a year ago when they opened for Gungor. Liked them better than Gungor and bought every CD they had on sell. And we were there for the Summit conference as well and picked up Advent 2. My favorite Christian band.

  4. Loved this. If anyone would like a listing of Advent specific carols, try this very comprehensive list. Lots more than just O Come O Come Emmanuel here!

  5. I'm currently reading a book by, Bob Sorge, called 'The Fire Of Delayed Answers.' I've never looked into Advent, but waiting on God has been the biggest lesson I've learnt this year if not in my whole life. God has and is doing a refining in/to/with me and it's painful, but worth every moment.

  6. I loved this post. I did not grow up with the liturgical traditions but recently have felt pulled toward them. Last year was the first time I ever heard mention of a church calendar year and I've been a Christian some 20 odd years. This language was nowhere in my upbringing but I feel drawn to know and learn more. Thank you for these posts; they have been so helpful and insightful for me

  7. My problem with "advent snobbery" is the "purity" aspect of it. I get the very real witness to a focus on waiting. But there are many ways to accomplish that.

    There's a strange impulse, in common between high-church traditions and Church-of-Christ traditions, toward doing the right thing on the right days. It reminds me so much of your work on purity. So we see services judged, not by whether the tenor of the service encouraged patient waiting, but on whether they lit the right candles. We see well-meaning Christians judged for singing Christmas carols--to nursing home patients and at-risk children--at the wrong time.

    Thanks for bringing attention back to the actual message: cultivating the discipline of waiting.

  8. Thank you for this post, and thanks to Joy, who posted the list of Advent hymns in the comments. At my house we love the Advent carol "People, Look East" by Eleanor Farjeon and the hymn "Christ the Lord" by Sarah Hart and Robert Feduccia. Last year I led an "Advent and Christmas hymn/carol sing" for our adult Sunday School class at church. In preparation I looked all over the internet for recently composed hymns (with verses) specific to Advent, and "Christ the Lord" was the only one I could find purchasable sheet music for. It's really lovely, both in lyrics and tune.

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