Thursday, December 04, 2008

liturgical theology of time

That's what I think is at the root of the carols-vs.-no-carols during Advent argument.

I am one of those people who does NOT want to sing Christmas carols in worship during Advent.  You can sing them elsewhere, you can hear them on the radio and in stores and in the Christmas specials that are no doubt all over TV.  But not on Sunday morning in Advent.

I have likened it to premature births--generally not good (though in the last month it's slightly  more okay for the baby and also many moms are READY!!).  The argument there is "Jesus has already been born--we're waiting for something different now."  

I have likened it to singing happy birthday a month before your birthday--generally not done.  What happens to the anticipation if you sing early, get your presents early, etc?  

But really, I think this is about conceptions of time.  

I think of time as cyclical, as opposed to linear.  This is born out by our liturgical calendar, which brings us the same stories at nearly the same time every year.  But the story is never exactly the same--we never hear it or experience it or live it the same way one year to the next.  It's not a circle, it's more of a spiral.  The place looks familiar but isn't exactly identical.

Cyclical time, when it comes to Christmas, is important because Advent is when we prepare for the Incarnation.  No, we're not technically preparing the way Mary did 2012 years ago.  But every year we need the time to prepare for God's breaking-in again.  Yes, the Word is incarnated in us as the Body of Christ every day, not just once a year.  But this is the time when we intentionally take time out and think about that, prepare, anticipate, wait.  How can we do that if we're busy singing about how it's already happened?  Where's the anticipation, the pain of waiting, if we're all GLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORIA! all through advent?  

If time is linear, then fine--sing the Christmas carols through all of Advent, because what we're really waiting for is something off in the future, not something that happens repeatedly in us.  We're waiting for God to do something we can't see yet.  We're waiting for GOD to do something further on down the line.

But if we're preparing for the word to be part of us, for us to be part of the action of the Word, yet again, then hold those carols, sing in minor keys, plaintively chant "O Come, O Come" and "how shall we meet you?" and wait for it.  It seems like it would be worth it.  Because we're coming around again to this reminder that, in many ways, WE are now the ones we are waiting for.  WE are the body of Christ in the world.  WE are preparing OURSELVES to be the incarnation of God in the world.  And that's going to take some work, not some jumping ahead to the main event.  Every year it's going to take work.  Every day, even.  Maybe every minute for some of us (aka me...).  The fact that the baby Jesus has already been born is irrelevant, because that isn't just some event that happened several marks back on the timeline, it's something we pass by every year on the spiral, something we re-live because it matters.  Jumping to it early only allows us to forego the hard work in ourselves and our communities.  We might as well light all the candles on the wreath, since we're not willing to wait for the light or walk through darkness to get there.

In so many ways, I think this is a symptom of the culture and the church being afraid of darkness, silence, grief,'s about instant gratification and instant grief recovery and refusal to be in the quiet dark places because they're too scary and too hard.  But even though we can just turn on electric lights, even though we can fill our ears with carols and our homes with beautifully wrapped stuff, even though we can party and eat and shop, we can't rush the work of Incarnation.  It happens when it happens.  Here's hoping we don't miss it, or miss out on being part of it, while we're singing cheery carols in the dark days.

One final, snarky argument:  would you sing "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today!" in Lent?  (okay, I'm done now...)


  1. Preach, my sistah! I, too am one of the "meanies" who is so selfish and poopy as to insist that we limit premature caroling to the kiddos on Advent 4.

    "But it would get us more excited for Christmas!!!" and "Can't we keep Christ in Christmas??"are the pleas I hear.

    What. Ever.

    (Your explanation is much nicer than anything I would come up with on the fly.)

  2. My only quibble is that kids usually *don't* get to sing them anywhere else. Christmas outside of church is very, very secular. I learned most of the religious Christmas music I know in school; that's not happening now, not where I live. So, I've softened, a little.
    But we're only modestly liturgical anyway.

  3. Oh, the struggle.
    I'm a poopy meanie, too.
    Bless you and your wonderful convictions!

  4. Sadly, while I tend to be both an Advent and Lent purist, there are actually folks in my parish who would answer your last question with a resounding, "Yes."

    Thanks for your words on my blog. It helps to be heard!

  5. I'm with Songbird.

    Also--in my experience this "battle" usual winds up being not about theology at all but a power struggle between "I've-been--to-seminary-so-I-know-what's right" pastors and "How-dare-you-change-our-beloved-traditions" members. One party wins and the other party goes home filled with self-righteous anger. Merry Christmas.

    Finally, I got an interesting insight on this from our choir director. She was looking through the Presbyterian hymnal and lamenting that we had no Advent hymns. I showed her the section. "No" she said. "Those are all about waiting for Jesus' birth. Advent hymns are about what's going to happen in the end." (She was raised 7th Day Adventist). To her, nothing we've done or sung since Nov.30 has been about the "real" advent. Interesting.