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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Ask the Matriarch – Are We There Yet?

Dear Matriarchs,
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?
—Advent Lover

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.”

The tightrope
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.”

Bring comfort
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?


  1. I'm not the only one who remembers 38 Special! I love this group. :)

    I'm an Evangelical so Advent tends to be free-wheeling from church to church. In the past, like Abi, I've picked hymns based on what I was preaching, including Christmas hymns.

  2. Yup, I go according to what I am preaching too. And I have struck a deal with my congregants that I will slip them the occasional Christmas hymn as long as if by the off chance one of my reformed worship professors should stop by they lie and tell him that I always made them wait until the 24th.

  3. Toe the line??? oh yeah, out of the 4 Sunday School classes that have Christmas parties, 2 of them had their parties before Advent had officially begun. I think our line looks like the 50 yard line during the last 2 minutes of a mud and snow bowl in Green Bay -- nonexistant regardless of what the preacher might attempt

  4. (disclaimer: I'm just an intern right now, and I have no official say over anything at my church) But I think using the occasional Christmas hymn is fine. For me, its more about giving space to unpack the themes of Advent before we can reach Christmas. The church I'm at right now - The director of music is as high church liturgical as you can get, and the senior pastor couldn't care less. Its fun to watch :o)

  5. I remember 38 Special too Shawna. And I even knew what mondegree means. (okay I admit I had just recently read an article on it, somewhere, i think about the mondegreens of Christmas songs. Helen, I do love your mondegree of "Hold on, Loosely."

    You asked me to post the links that I suggested for this question. So follow this link St.John's Rev Abi: Christmas Hymns sung during Advent? and you'll find the links plus my full response.

  6. Like Kerygma, I'm an intern right now, so I really haven't been in the think of things. But I'm actually about to go post on The Kitchen Door about why I'm feeling like such a hardliner this year.

  7. I wonder if our people really understand what Advent is? It is about preparing ourselves for the coming of Jesus, or the Light, or however you like to name the Coming.

    We get ready by getting gifts, baking, going to parties.

    Also, by going to concerts, singing carols, visiting the sick and shut-ins, and maybe taking cookies to them, lighting candles at services that bring us to an understanding why and what happens at this time of year.

    It's all about preparation for Christ's coming ....not Santa's coming.

    Whatever helps those around do this will help in the long run. The lectionary does give some help in this and our hymn book does have Advent hymns.

    I wonder if after Christmas is over we need to go back and look at what it meant and it will mean throughout the following days, weeks, months, and the year.

    Emmanuel...God with us! No matter what happens, where we are in our lives, whoever we are ....God is with us!

    Christmas reminds us of this and Advent prepares us to remember this.

    Perhaps in whatever we do at Advent we can keep this in mind. Remember, God accepts our offerings, even when some folks aren't quite in the same place..... actually, are we ever? But, that's okay, we will do our best.

    In the words of Tiny Tim . . .
    "God bless us every one!"


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