Sunday, December 12, 2010
Looking around the internet and my fellow bloggers, there have been the usual posts that pop up this time of year - the hand-wringing over how the season of Advent has been neutered and is really no longer Advent at all; how the agenda of the world has taken over the church and Advent is now just preparation for Christmas, as all December is in the world, and the emphases on repentance and the coming of Christ in glory and judgment have been lost.
I agree with much of their analysis of what has happened. This post is not to argue about that, but to ask: what are we to do about it? And how?
Some say: ignore the world! Keep Advent, Advent! Blue paraments are evil (yes, I am overstating here), they must remain purple! Join the resistance! I sympathize with this view, and am even partial to it. But I don't think it does much good. I remember when I was little, having a pastor that did this. I asked him one day why we didn't sing Christmas carols in church before Christmas. He told me: Because it's not Christmas! It's Advent. You know what? That didn't help. I had an answer, but was still confused.
Others have given in to the world and do not see the point in fighting for Advent. Times have changed, they say, and people don't understand. People want Christmas, so give 'em Christmas. I do not agree with this approach, and believe the church year is good, right, and salutary in teaching our people.
So what to do? And how? How do you take a culture heading full steam for Christmas and put the breaks on it? How do you preach to people who are inundated with the cultural Christmas since Thanksgiving (if not before!) and preach Advent to them? And preach it without sounding like a grumpy, old, puritanical man that doesn't want them to have any fun?
That's the challenge I, and all preachers, face every year. I don't think it does any good to ignore Christmas and just preach Advent - that just leaves your people confused and a bit schizophrenic. The challenge is to help them see the reason for Advent. And not just tell them that there is one, but preach it so they realize it. It's the same difference between talking about the Gospel and preaching the Gospel. The first is easy; the second more challenging. For to preach is to penetrate not just the ears, but the heart. Yes, this is the work of the Holy Spirit, and for that I am most grateful, because if it were up to me, no one would ever believe! And yet it has been given to me - with whatever talents and abilities God has given me - to preach the Word.
And so I often agonize - how do you preach John the Baptist to people at this time of year? How do you help them understand not just Christmas joy but, as our liturgy says, repentant joy? How do you teach them to love our Advent hymns as much as our Christmas carols? As much as I love Advent, for me, it is one of the most challenging times of the year.