When I first started serving as Pastor and Teacher at Old South Church in Hallowell, Maine, it was only a couple of months before Advent. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when it came to Old South’s usual Advent and Christmas observance, but I got a good sense of things when I arrived for worship on the Sunday after Thanksgiving to find the entire sanctuary bedecked for Christmas—greens, wreaths, green and red, etc. Everywhere.
No one had said anything and, of course, no one had consulted me, or asked about what I thought about Christmas decorations at the start of Advent. Just as in lots of other congregational churches like Old South, there was really nothing to ask. Thanksgiving arrives and then it’s Christmastime. Sure, there might be the token nod to Advent with an Advent wreath, but the emphasis is clearly on Christmas. And, somewhere in there, the expectation that Christmas carols will be a part of worship as soon as possible.
Old South was my first call as a senior or sole pastor, but I knew that Advent is sometimes a prickly part of church life. When I served as an associate pastor in Cambridge, MA, one of the area UCC clergy was infamous for his hard-line approach to the season: no Christmas carols until Christmas! Somehow he managed to keep a hold on an all-Advent season before December 24, but there were plenty of unhappy folks from that church who gloomingly shared the tale of the injustice of no Christmas carols before Christmas.
I never felt quite the need to develop such a hard-line approach, and certainly knew that such an approach would likely spell a quick end to my tenure at Old South, but I wasn’t exactly going to let Advent go, mostly, unacknowledged and unobserved.
Over my years at Old South, which are now quite a few, we’ve settled into something of a compromise of sorts. Although I haven’t been able to stem the tide of the festooning of the sanctuary in Christmas garb that still occurs right after Thanksgiving (and has increased over the years), I have been able to maintain a focus on Advent at least through the first two or three Sundays of Advent. Worship is grounded in Advent, in some way or another, and we don’t sing Christmas carols.
I’m not sure I can admit any sort of victory. For the most part, I sense that most of the folks who regularly attend Old South manage to put up with my strange Advent eccentricity only because I’m now not the only one who plans worship. We have a small worship team that meets regularly to talk about worship, and to choose hymns. Team members, it turns out, really like Advent hymns—especially the ones that are found in The New Century hymnal. The words and the minor tone qualities of those Advent hymns provide a comforting antidote to the crush of Merry Christmas everywhere else in their lives.
This year, in addition to the Advent candle-lighting themes of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love, worship has centered on the women in the genealogy of Jesus (thank you The Junia Project for this idea)—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Uriah’s Wife (Bathsheba) and Mary. It seems especially appropriate to highlight these women now in light of the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, for these women have much to teach us. Their stories are remarkable and should be known. And, beyond that, these women provide illuminating lessons not only concerning the difficult and oppressive conditions in which women have lived, and continue to live, but also on the ways through which God has made use of and relied on bold and courageous women. And, in addition to that, these women teach us about the significance of outsiders in the line of which Jesus was part. Woman after woman is clearly defined as an outsider of some kind, an outsider who was welcomed in (more or less) and who became an integral piece of the family puzzle that would produce the Messiah, God’s Promised One.
In the midst of the display of Christmas all around us, worship at Old South is centered on Advent—at least for a few precious weeks. Advent is a crucial time in the life of a community of faith, as we not only prepare for a story that most of us know all too well, but as we seek to open our hearts and minds to the continuing unexpected, mysterious and surprising presence of God in our lives. Advent is not only a season for waiting for the same old Christmas story, and the opportunity to sing our favorite Christmas carols. It’s also a holy and sacred time to consider anew what that babe in the manger means, and how well we are able to follow where he beckons us.