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What to Do About Advent

The church year was developed centuries ago as a teaching tool. From four Sundays before Christmas to the celebration of the ascension of Jesus, it tells the story of the Christian faith. Advent is the story of the sinful world yearning for a savior. It focuses on Old Testament prophesy related to the coming Messiah. The next two Sundays celebrate the birth of Jesus. The Sundays following that up until Lent are called Epiphany (God manifest to the world in Jesus). The arrival of the Magi symbolizes the world coming to Jesus.

Lent focuses on the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (40 days) and our own struggle with temptation. Palm Sunday and Holy Week conclude Lent with the crucifixion of Jesus being its final act. Easter introduces the Sundays in celebration of God's victory in Jesus. Pentecost Sunday is seven Sundays after Easter and celebrates the coming of God the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church. Trinity Sunday is the next Sunday and follows the revelation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being complete. Sundays after Pentecost are not designated as to theme, but are left open to the church to emphasize aspects of the message already proclaimed in the church year. For more information see Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_year

No one has any trouble with this teaching sequence other than the use of Advent and Christmas. The secular observance of Christmas has no Advent, and it elongates Christmas from two weeks to two months. Therein lies the problem. The church is trying to teach the serious story of a world trapped in the darkness of sin and our desperate need for God to come, while the society around us is trying to have a party. Most church members are more tuned in to the party. It is not their fault. When they come to church on the Sundays before Christmas and don't get to sing the party songs, they can feel let down, dreary,and even angry. We all love the Christmas music.

What can we do? First, we should recognize that all Sundays are a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus and therefore should never be anything other than uplifting. It is our responsibility as worship leaders to lead the people in joyous celebration each Sunday. It is also our responsibility to lead them in a deep celebration that recognizes the cost of the victory and the nature of the threat from which we have been saved. Shallow celebration is like cotton candy. It does not nourish.

The task for worship planners during Advent and Christmas is to be faithful teachers. It is not our task to follow some traditional rule. Therefore, in my opinion, it is appropriate to sing a Christmas carol on the first Sunday of Advent, especially one of the more reflective ones, such as "In the Bleak Midwinter," which catches the message of Advent — a world yearning for warmth. The other music in the first two Sundays of Advent can teach the need to be ready for God to come. The third and fourth Sundays of Advent can take the middle hymn spot to do a medley of Christmas carols. This way, the people get to sing a verse or two of their favorites and leave the service satisfied that the joy and nostalgia of Christmas have been addressed. Again, the other hymns can be more along the line of anticipation.

To my mind, this satisfies our responsibility to teach the faith, maintain continuity with our tradition, and minister to the needs of the congregation.

The Rev. Roland McGregor is a Retired Elder in the New Mexico Annual Conference. Copyright © 2006 Roland McGregor. Used by permission.

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