Thursday, December 06, 2012

Don't Be Afraid of the Advent Police!

Loved this cartoon, which I saw on Facebook today.

My seminary training that told me that you sang no Christmas hymns and had no Christmas decorations in the church building during Advent got upended during my first Advent as a pastor.

A parishioner said to me after the Second Sunday of Advent, "Pastor, I notice that we haven't sung any Christmas hymns yet." Drawing on my "theological training," I told him (as if he didn't know): "This is Advent. Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of Christmas." "But, Pastor," he said, "singing Christmas hymns is how I prepare for Christmas."

I knew that the same was true for me. I prepared myself for Christmas during Advent with all that reminded me of Christmas. I always started playing Christmas music on Thanksgiving and played it loudly throughout my house until the end of the year. At the moment that parishioner said this to me, my family and I had had our Christmas decorations up for about three weeks.

I never want to get rid of Advent hymns or the celebration of the unique elements of Advent. But during Advent, we do prepare for the coming of the celebration of the birth of Christ (as well as of the certainty of His return in glory one day) and it's good to be reminded of this fact. So, I've been sure to include Christmas hymns during Advent worship in the churches I've served ever since.

By the way, it's by this same logic that I also reject the ancient custom of putting "Hallelujah" away during Lent, as we were also taught to do in seminary.

Jesus is still risen from the dead, whether it's the Third Sunday in Lent or not. Stifling our Hallelujahs during Lent, pretending that we don't have an Easter victory for which to praise God during that time reminds me of an old bit used by comedian Steve Martin.

Martin would be in the middle of his routine, look down at his feet and say, "Oh, my shoes are untied," bend down and then pop right up again, saying, "No, they're not. I love to fool myself like that!" We can remember with awe, sadness, and contrition Christ's death for us on the cross. But we can no longer pretend that His lifeless body lay in the tomb. We can't fool ourselves because He is risen!

And so, as Christians we have just as much reason to shout, "Hallelujah!" ("God be praised!) during Lent as at any other time of the year. Why should we stop praising God because of what is, when wrongly used, a human conceit.

In fact, there's even more reason to sing Easter hymns during Lent than there is for us to sing Christmas hymns during Advent. Every Sunday is meant to be a "little Easter" in which we celebrate Christ's victory over sin and death when He rose from the dead on the first Easter. That's why the Sundays that fall during Lent aren't counted as part of the forty days of the season, meaning that we call Lenten Sundays, Sundays in Lent, and not Sundays of Lent.

The Church Year is a tool that can be used to glorify God and convey the central truths of the Christian faith both to seekers of God and to those who have been in relationship with God through Jesus Christ their entire lives. It can help us to worship God and live out a balanced faith rooted in the whole truth about the God revealed to all the world in Jesus Christ.

But the Church Year falls into the category Martin Luther called "adiaphora," a Latin term that means, "indifferent things," things that, in themselves cannot bring salvation. It is, as the theologians say, "non-salvific," incapable in itself of bringing a saving faith in Jesus Christ to those who use it. The Church Year then, is the moral equivalent of a hammer. A hammer is a great tool, but it can't save you from sin and death. Only the word of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and that word embodied in the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion can work salvation and the forgiveness of sins.

You won't go to hell if you sing a Christmas hymn during Advent.

You won't encounter God's wrath for singing, "Hallelujah!" during Lent. (Nor by singing its variant, "Alleluia!")

Nor will God be upset if you continue to sing hymns of praise during both seasons, also no-no's according to liturgical propriety.

Christ sets free all who hear His Word and by faith, turn from sin and believe in Him.

We are no longer slaves to the proscribed customs of human beings.

We may find the Church Year a useful tool for growing in our faith. But we shouldn't be slaves to it.

[The cartoon was shared by Pastor Steve Shipman on Facebook. He got it from the FB site, Episcopal Church Memes. But I have no idea who the cartoonist is. If any of you know, I would like to know in order to attribute credit.]

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