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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Advent, Christmastide, and a High Ecclesiology

On Sunday, December 7th, I had the privilege of hearing a choir perform their annual Christmas music special at the First Baptist Church of a Mississippi City. The performance was predictable, but well done. There were traditional Christmas hymns intermixed with original songs, all performed wonderfully by the church choir and accompanied by an orchestra of mostly high school students. The songs were separated by narration that re-told the Christmas story and presented a basic plan of salvation to the congregation. Overall it was a solid program.

During the service, though, I had a recurring thought: “but it’s not Christmas…”

Yes, the sanctuary had been artfully decorated with garlands, candles, and other trappings of the Advent season.[1] But the performance of the Christmas music (and especially the accompanying narration) made it seem that Christmas had already come, that the “Silent Night” was passed, and that we should be reminded of the end-result of the Incarnation, that is, Christ’s crucifixion. It was as though the entire event was meant for a late-night Christmas Eve service. It would have been perfect for Christmas Vigil, in fact.

I realize that I am in the extreme minority among my Baptist peers when it comes to observing the Church Year, but my response to the service was more about our cultural relationship to Christmas than it was a desire to implement the Church Year in this local congregation.

I think I’m getting tired of synthesizing Christmas joy. There I sat, on December the seventh, participating in a performance that asked me to pretend that this bright, warm morning was Christmas Eve/Day. I was having to fake it. I do not mean this pejoratively; I simply mean that I was aware of the dissonance between the performance and the actual celebration of Christmas.

I need Advent. I need a time to reflect on my own need for the Incarnation. After all, since the last time the Church concentrated on the concept of “Emmanuel” I’ve certainly learned something new, forgotten something true, and sinned a great deal. I need Advent. But even if I emphasize the Hanging of the Greens, the Advent weeks, the candles, the readings and the rest, I’m bombarded by the earlier-than-ever Christmas shopping season, the radio station that my neighbor plays all day with its Christmas music, and Christmas parties for school and church.

Here’s a reality that I’m struggling with: we’ve allowed our work, school, and family schedules to divorce Christmas from the church, even in the church. Why do we have the annual Christmas performances of our choirs on December the 7th? Because our schedules and priorities have made the church give up one of its most important days. We would never be able to host a Christmas choral performance on Christmas Day. We couldn’t sync up the words we’re singing with the actual observation of Christ’s birth because, well, we’d rather be with family than at church. In truth, I’d rather be at home in my Christmas pajamas watching my daughter open presents than singing at church in a rented tux. That’s why I’m struggling with it: I’m tired of the dissonance but I don’t want to change.

I wrote several months ago[2] about the importance of Eastertide as a balance to Lent. I think that a similar argument could be made for the intentional delay of celebrating Christmas until after Advent. I realize that such a delay is impractical given the sheer momentum of our cultural observance of the Christmas season. However, it may be the solution to my feelings of synthesizing joy. I’d really just like to wait until Christmas to open my presents.

This is all wrapped up in what is becoming my personal theological project: a high ecclesiology for Baptists. I want to place a higher value on the believer’s participation in the congregation. I want the believers to make the choice to resist the cultural forces that divorce Christmas from the Incarnation, and thus the “season of giving” from the congregational celebration of God’s Gift to humanity. I’ve found some success in introducing Advent into my local congregations, but there is still the parallel “Christmas Season” that takes energy away from the heart’s contemplation of our need for and God’s provision of a Savior.

I want the church to matter more to Baptists, and I want it to matter in such a way that one day, against even my own preferences, we could sing “Joy to the World” on the same day that we set aside to remember Christ’s birth.

[1] The church itself does not observe the Church Year, but it certainly participates in the traditional de-facto liturgical calendar of the SBC.

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