This will be my fifth Advent in ministry, and I am still trying to negotiate the shark-infested waters of choosing hymns in December. Although I grew up primarily in a nonliturgical denomination, I have come to love Advent as a season of preparation for the new. Holding a hard line on the hymns my first year may well be one of the reasons my musician quit a few months later. Could you share your wisdom with regard to cleaving to Advent versus allowing the Baby Jesus to come just a little early?
I don’t know why, but I just had an early-80s flashback to “Hold On Loosely” by .38 Special. And to completely derail this, I had the sixth-grade mondegreen that it was “hold on, loose-leaf.” I thought it was about losing homework.
Sorry. Back to the present. That was also my era of Christmas pageantry and knowing every Advent-Christmas-Epiphany hymn by heart. Sure, the lines are a little blurry, what with retailers getting all festive and eggnoggy right after the Halloween decorations come down. If we get too preoccupied with “He’s here!”, we risk losing sight of what it means to anticipate, wait, hope during that period of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.”
So how do we strike a balance, especially when choosing music to set the atmosphere? Jan suggests assuaging the “Can't-Wait-For-Christmas musicians by sprinkling in some ‘Christmas-Yet-Advent-y’ choices.” That is, not “Jesus Christ Is Born Today”—but look at some other, perhaps not obvious elements past the first lines of the hymns. “We sang ‘Joy to the World’ on Advent 1,” says Jan, “weaving it through the service (verse 3 instead of the Gloria) because the words speak to the ‘already here/not yet’ aspect of the coming of Christ: ‘Let every heart prepare him room . . . ‘ Another hymn that is definitely a Christmas carol yet (sort of) Advent-friendly is: It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”
You don’t have to keep ‘em separated, though. “Okay, some of you hardliners for Advent are going to think I am heretical and sacrilegious,” says Abi. (We love you either way!) “I do not keep Christmas hymns out through the month of December. I pick my music by the theme I am preaching. So if I am preaching on hope, the music goes with hope, if it is a Christmas hymn, then we sing it.”
And she gives a persuasive argument for doing it this way: This is the time of year that unchurched folks come wandering in. Sure, there are the 20-somethings coming back to visit family and the nonchurchy spouses paying their annual visit. But there are deeper opportunities for connections at this time. “Having preached in a service where there were people who had not been to church, didn't know Jesus, we tried to gear the preaching, the music, whatever we did toward them using the idea of a ‘felt need,’” says Abi. “We did light the candles, but even rewrote the liturgy for that to reflect the felt need and language they could understand.” She also has some thoughts on worship and offering praise and adoration that I’ll let her save for another post, but the point of it was that singing is about praise, and God won’t object to music programming as long as it’s sung joyfully.
I have to admit that I connect best with Christmas music I know. I went to an advent lessons and carols service last year that was beautiful, but not the one I remembered—it was later that I realized it was different from a Christmas lessons and carols service. So it was a little weird for me to walk out of church confused because I had only recognized one hymn, O Come O Come Emmanuel. But mostly, it didn’t matter, because the service on the whole had been so beautiful. Abi, also, remembers “being deeply touched when I went to an advent service for the first time…I believe the liturgy, the bells, smells and whistles touches something deep within the core of human beings. I believe that it is the five senses being touched. So how can we make the service be that experiential for people? That may provoke some thought for addressing all parts of the worship—including, but not limited to, the hymns.”
A matter of perspective
Karen agrees. “There’s a lot to be said for reviving/preserving Advent as a distinct season of preparation for celebrating the Incarnation of God in Christ. There's not a lot to be said for an annual pastor vs. congregation power struggle over Christmas carols before 12/24. The more I reflect on my own experience and observations, the more I think the Advent hymns vs. Christmas carols battle is usually not about Advent at all but about Who Is In Charge.”
During Advent, you have their attention, she continues. Use this time! “We insist that we save any mention of The Birth until Christmas Eve, then we have 12 days to unpack the whole doctrine of the Incarnation when no one is paying attention. How is this really helpful?”
Karen adds that you could make the argument that the best preparation for Christmas is exploring the mystery of the Incarnation deeply over an extended period of time. “There is a lot of incarnational theology packed into those Christmas carols,” she says. “People love singing them. Why not use this?”
So hold on loosely, but don't let go
The matriarchs encourage you to not be hardline—especially if you have the liturgical freedom to exercise a wide latitude in how you observe the movement of the liturgical year. Says Karen, “We can get creative with this in ways that our Episcopalian and Lutheran kindred can't. Hint: This is a good thing!! Go for it!” And heck, I’m Episcopalian, and I’ve seen some beautifully creative liturgical practices throughout the year. (My mother, a dyed-in-the-wool high-church organist, still cringes at the thought of tapping djembes during the processional.)
One last note: Abi sent a list of helpful links she has on hand for this matter and I was not able to reproduce them in a timely fashion, but I’m sure she will share them in comments. Speaking of comments, how do you toe the line between Advent and Christmas?