changed throughout history
overlook Advent before Christmas
Rev. Rick T. Draper
MADISON, IN (December 2009) Many years ago, I was called
to serve three rural churches in the southern part of Virginia. Two
of them were content to follow the practices of the Episcopal Church.
The third was rather feisty and, while it proudly claimed its membership
in our denomination, it was usually at odds with its customs at
least as I carried them out.
Every year about this time, (as they were publicly discussing why I
didnt deserve a raise for the next year) they would point out
that it was after Thanksgiving but we were not singing Christmas Carols
like were supposed to and we had not yet decorated
for Christmas. My explanation that it was not Christmas
yet, it was Advent was always met with a roll of the eyes and
exasperated sighs. And the designated mutterer would traditionally opine,
Well, at least Bethel Church down the street gets it right!
So why do we and a few other brave denominations stubbornly
hold out for a Christmas season that begins with a Midnight Mass Christmas
Eve and continue until the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6 while the
rest of the world has its trees out on the street and the After-Christmas
sales cranking up by Dec. 26?
It actually has a long history one far older than counting down
the shopping days, or reindeer on rooftops.
There was no celebration of Christmas until the Fourth Century. It may
come as a surprise to some that we dont actually know the date
of Jesus birth. Clement of Alexandria, (early 2nd Century) suggested
observing it on May 20! By the mid-300s, the birth of the one who brings
New Life was being celebrated in the place of festivals to the birth
of a new solar year.
Eventually, Dec. 25 became the day. The three large festivals at the
time were Easter, Pentecost and Epiphany. Epiphany was first associated
with the baptism of Jesus, but in the West, it was eventually connected
to the visit of the Magi. This encouraged the giving of gifts
but on Jan. 6 not Dec. 25. It would take the customs of many
nations, the influence of Saints Nicolas and Lucia and the works of
Charles Dickens, Clement Moore and Thomas Nast to transform Christmas
into the mighty festival it has become.
Over the centuries, the Church developed a calendar that reflected the
whole story of redemption. It starts with Advent, a time of waiting
and anticipation, both the Old Testaments long wait for a Savior
and the Churchs belief that our King shall come again. Advent
begins on the Sunday closest to Saint Andrews Day (Nov. 30) and
ends with the Christmas Eve celebration. So we sing, Come thou
long expected Jesus and O come, O come, Emmanuel in
Advent, but we hold off on O come, all ye faithful for a
few more weeks.
On Christmas Eve, we pull out all the stops! The purple of Advent is
replaced by the white of Christmas, bedecked with red and gold. The
Midnight Mass is planned so that Holy Communion takes place
as close to midnight as we can make it. Candles light the darkness and
the songs of Christmas fill the air! In spite of my old Virginia church,
it is an event worth waiting for! The Churchs version of the Christmas
season lasts 12 days. (Just like the song!) It ends with the Feast of
the Epiphany on Jan. 6.
Years ago, the gifts were given on Old Christmas, Jan. 6.
Here, the marketing world has missed an opportunity. If only they had
known, they could have added 12 more shopping days!
The Liturgical Calendar continues with Jesus ministry, anticipation
of his sacrifice, the Passion, the Resurrection, Ascension, gift of
the Holy Spirit and the ministry of the Church, bringing us full circle
to the next years Advent. Then, once again, someone will wonder
why we arent into Christmas carols as soon as the leftover Thanksgiving
turkey is in the fridge. And we just smile. Christmas is special; its
worth the wait!
The Rev. Richard T. Draper is the Rector
at Christ Episcopal Church, 506 Mulberry St., in Madison, Ind. Call
him at (812) 265-2158.
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