Today is the First Sunday in Advent, and along with all of the coverage of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the plethora of Christmas stuff around, we’re also presented with another way of celebrating the time before the birth of Our Saviour: Advent. The first season in the liturgical calendar, this year promises to be a special one for Roman Catholic as they, extensive preparation notwithstanding, stumble through their “new” revised liturgy. (This happened the last time a major change took place, it’s the tradition in the RCC.)
On a more Anglican/Episcopal note, Advent is always something presented in church but not always easy to implement in our culture. Nevertheless in recent years we’ve seen a greater consciousness of the celebration, thanks in no small measure to people like Lisa Robertson, who gave us the executive summary late last week:
Lisa has been a stalwart of the Episcopal Church for many years, both in her own family and elsewhere. Personally I don’t think TEC is worth the trouble and have basically told her so, but the institutional loyalty the denomination of the “chosen frozen” has engendered is always an amazing thing; sadly it has carelessly squandered that more than once.
In any case, her presentation of the subject left out two things about Advent that deserve mention as we get into the season.
The first is that Advent, like Lent, was intended as a penitential season. It’s interesting to note, as Hughes Old does in The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, Vol. 2: The Patristic Age, that Lent–the penitential season par excellence–wasn’t really penitential until the church went over to infant baptism as the norm. Before that the time leading up to Easter was the time when the catechumens were prepared for baptism and chrismation, a subject I discussed at length in my series on St. Cyril’s Catechetical lectures. Once infant baptism became the norm, then Lent became a penitential season for everyone and not just for those becoming Christians.
The idea for Advent is that, with the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh, it is our obligation to prepare for his coming through repentance and obtaining forgiveness for our sins. Thus, traditionally, Advent is a sombre season. The purple colour that used to deck out every Episcopal church (until they started sneaking in blue) spoke to that penitential call; it’s the same colour used in Lent. All of the Advent candles are purple until the end because we are supposed to be in a state of repentance until his coming, at which point we can look past a rose-coloured candle at the world.
The second thing is that Advent, while leading up to the first coming of the Saviour, also speaks about us preparing for the second. People raised in the Episcopal Church will recall hearing Charles Wesley’s hymn Lo, he comes with clouds descending–an old Anglican favourite, and justifiably so–but in recent years Our Lord’s second coming has become such an inconvenient truth that many of us who sang it were hard pressed to understand why we were doing this so near Christmas. (A similar analysis should be applied to the better known “Joy to the World.”) Although Evangelicals are generally triumphalistic about the whole business, a little humility and repentance wouldn’t be a bad idea, especially since at the end “…in adoration of the Name of Jesus every knee should bend, in Heaven, on earth, and under the earth, And that every tongue should acknowledge JESUS CHRIST as LORD–to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10, 11.)
Advent, thus, is a time which runs against many grains, both in our churches and in our society of large. That and that alone makes it worth reviving, if not for everyone else’s benefit at least our own.