Celebrating an Extended Advent at Epworth UMC, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
By Suzanne Wenonah Duchesne
In an article by Taylor Burton-Edwards, Safiyah Fosua, and Dean McIntyre it was proposed that we worship leaders and pastors might want to consider trying something different for Advent this year. Take it from two who tried it last year when we say a change such as they proposed can be very meaningful. Let me back up a bit.
As a pastor, I often found myself in a liturgical dilemma during the Advent season. I wanted to extend the tension of waiting until Christmas Eve and yet other worship leaders thought it best to begin Christmas earlier. Usually it began with at least one Christmas hymn the first week of Advent slowly building the repertoire until Christmas Eve. These songs would be interspersed with Christmas Cantatas, Christmas Plays and Christmas themed children’s events. "It comes but once a year and these songs are beloved,” they would tell me. "It comes but once a year and these texts are beloved too,” I would think to myself. So how can we be sensitive to the needs of a congregation and yet present the prophetic texts and mystery of incarnational waiting that so many people actually long for?
These questions followed me throughout my pastoral ministry and into my work as a Liturgical studies student. They came once again to the fore when Jill Burnett Comings spoke in the spring of 2010 at a small gathering of students at Drew Theological School to tell us about an ecumenical project she was working on which would expand Advent from four to seven weeks. The project is known as The Advent Project. My husband, also a UM pastor, and I discussed the possibility of trying this in our church in Bethlehem, PA. Epworth UMC already valued keeping Advent so we hoped that matching the music to the prophetic texts already in the lectionary would be attractive to them. I presented the idea at a worship planning meeting on a warm day in September long before anyone was thinking about Christmas.
Each member got a copy of the article written by Dr. Comings titled "Culmination in the Communio Sanctorum: Celebrating The Feast of All Saints as Completion of the Liturgical Year" that explained some of the rationale behind the expanded Advent project. Many in the room had not heard the historical reasons for ending the liturgical calendar year on Christ the King Sunday. However, it didn't take much for them to grasp that stressing the future coming of Christ as the height of our Christian year distorted our Wesleyan understanding of kingdom life. Their understanding of the Kingdom of God is not only a future event but also here and now. Epworth lives into that tension every day. They value their surrounding community and understand their kingdom participation through their works of mercy. By extending Advent, the culmination of the liturgical year would be All Saints Day. Now, they could end their year by honoring those who labor for Christ and encourage each other in the kingdom work they have been called to do. As for those of us who are preachers, we could connect the prophetic texts together over the seven weeks, weaving a wide and deep tapestry of the expectation surrounding Jesus' Messiahship.
The team embraced these theological concepts but the practical concerned them. How do we communicate the Advent theme without alarming everyone and raising anxiety in the congregation? Another value of this congregation is creating caring communities. We decided that instead of eliminating anything we would add. Because of the importance of the Advent Wreath ritual to this congregation, we left that intact at four Sundays. However, the week after All Saints Sunday, we began a ritual of a Jesse tree trimming during the children's sermon. A different presenter gave weekly lessons based on the genealogy of Jesus. The children made ornaments in the Sunday school classes to be placed on the tree. As a ritual it was similar to trimming a Christmas tree but different enough to expand the Advent theme. Every week members would add evergreens to the sanctuary as a sign of building anticipation. Because of a long-standing tradition, the congregation fully decorated the sanctuary at a special gathering just after Thanksgiving.
For the services, we kept communion on the first Sunday and wrote a Great Thanksgiving prayer that highlighted the Advent themes. We gathered materials from the expanded Advent work group such as Antiphons and Advent collect prayers that enumerated the weekly themes throughout the season.
As you can probably tell it was important that we honored the values of the congregation. We had spent a year in discernment discovering our common values. So it was important that the team listen to the congregation and what they thought about the idea and how they were experiencing worship together. After I presented to the worship team, they in turn presented the idea and rationale to the SPRC, the choir, and the small groups of the church. The choir director and pastor wrote articles for the newsletter and the webpage throughout the season. Communication was a key component. The first Sunday of the extended Advent the pastor made a special announcement inviting the congregation to enter into the expanded season.
Because this is still a developing ecumenical project, we were asked to survey the congregation. People responded that they had a deepened experience of Advent and the focus of the expanded season shifted from an end times (eschatology) to a Bethlehem (incarnation). The small groups related how they had begun to reflect on and understand more fully that the culmination of Advent would not be fulfilled on Christmas morning but rather on a hill called Calvary. It is interesting to note that this opened up many conversations on messiahship, atonement, and sanctification that have continued throughout Lent.
As the first United Methodist Church to try this, there were some learning curves. Many worshippers remarked positively about the creativity in the worship but found the antiphons and the Advent Prayers of the People frustrating. They missed sharing joys and concerns in a livelier manner as they were accustomed to and found the plainsong used for the antiphons difficult to manage. Half said they would try it again and the other half said they would be glad to try it again with the antiphons and prayers adjusted.
With this in mind, we plan to expand our Advent season again this coming year. We are talking about using "O come, O come Emmanuel" for our antiphons to provide the same frame but with a familiar hymn. Furthermore, we are considering how we might incorporate the themes through other liturgical forms rather than formal collect prayers. Perhaps in the Call to Worship or in the prayers but with a more extemporaneous form. This is an evolving group effort based in our context so I offer you what we learned and encourage you to delve into your own context to discover the richness such an expanded Advent might afford you.
One thing I will admit to you. With our focus on the waiting for such a substantial amount of time, we didn't experience our usual disappointment when the choir director approached us about the children's choir singing a Christmas song the week before Christmas. The theme was Emmanuel. What else could we do? That is what being incarnational is all about.