A sign in the sacristy of a church I once served in says, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. And it’s all small stuff.”
True enough, I think, when the nerves of a rookie acolyte or Eucharistic Minister (or priest, for that matter) are on edge. But a series of conversations, both on Facebook and in person, over the last several days has got me thinking that it’s perhaps not a maxim we would want to apply universally.
As is often the case, the impetus for deeper reflection came from a source that it in itself of less than eternal significance—namely, the appropriate observance of the season of Advent, extending even to the particularity of what color the candles in an Advent Wreath should be. Nothing over which the blood of martyrs should be shed.
Allow me to wax autobiographical for a bit: I grew up in American suburbia in the 1950s and ‘60s, and in the sub-culture of free-church evangelicalism. Christmas was a pretty big deal—culturally, and in my church, and in my family. Our minds began to turn Christmasward around the beginning of December. Most everybody put up their Christmas tree somewhere near the middle of the month, give or take a few days, and left them up until New Year’s Day or so. In school, we sang Christmas carols in music class, and had some sort of pageant or program, in the final days prior two a two-week recess. There was usually something similar at church, and it was “Christmas” in church on the Sunday before and the Sunday after the actual holiday. (One of my most unpleasant memories is having been made to play “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” on the french horn at a Sunday evening service right before Christmas when I was in the eighth or ninth grade.)
In college, I discovered the great western liturgical tradition, via Anglicanism. In graduate school, I embraced that tradition. Part of that inheritance is the liturgical calendar, and the liturgical calendar begins, of course, with Advent. At first, I surmised that Advent must be a churchy way of saying “Christmastime,” and provided respectable cover for the familiar decorations, music, and festive social gatherings associated with the season. But we certainly weren’t singing carols in church, and it wasn’t all decked out in wreaths and garlands and bows. In fact, it looked rather more austere than usual. And when I snooped around the territory of Advent, I ran into the unsettling imagery of the Parousia (“deeply wailing, deeply wailing, shall the true Messiah see”) and the in-your-face polemic of John the Baptist. Only on the Sunday right before Christmas did we finally hear about an angel and a virgin, and usually sang “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” which, even though in the Advent section of the hymnal,”counts” as a Christmas song in the popular imagination.
In time, I fell in love with Advent. I fell in love with the “begin with the end in mind” first Sunday, and all of its apocalyptic overtones. I fell in love with Isaiah and John the Baptist. I fell in love with the Anglican warhorse hymns of the season: “Hark, a thrilling voice is sounding,” “On Jordan’s banks,” “Lo, he comes,” “Creator of the stars of night,” and more recently, “Savior of the nations, come” and “Prepare the way, O Zion.” Of course, “Veni Emmanuel” was already permanently ensconced in my soul, but discovering the Great O Antiphons on which it is based, and actually using them liturgically with the Magnificat at Evening Prayer the week before Christmas, has been an immeasurable boon to my spirituality.
Further investigation yielded the information that the “excruciatingly correct” way for an Episcopalian to keep Advent is to defer putting up any decorations until Christmas Eve day, if possible, and to eschew festive social gatherings to the extent possible without giving offense. Then, after the Mass of Christmas Eve, it’s not only permissible, but virtually required, to “let it all hang out” with festivity—liturgically, decoratively, and socially—for the twelve days that follow (i.e. the actual “twelve days of Christmas”), until Epiphany on January 6, at which time all greenery comes down and is brought to the churchyard, where there is a huge bonfire after the Mass (a sign of connection, no doubt, with the Druid strand in the DNA of Anglicanism!).
In our family, the family in which we raised our three children, we actually tried—and, for the most part, succeeded—to live that way. In so doing, we have never been under any illusion that we were not swimming decidedly upstream against the current of not only the secular culture, but the non-liturgical Christian culture as well. Over the last twenty years or so, for whatever combination of reasons (the retail industry being the prime suspect), what used to be known as “Christmastime” has morphed into “the holidays,” and its commencement has progressively invaded all of December, and has, only this year, it seems, broken the “Thanksgiving barrier.” What’s next? Hallowe’en? Labor Day?
Alas, the older I get, the more I discover that the classical tradition is not only ignored, but virtually unknown, even among Episcopalians, even among clergy! We have been assimilated into the Holidays Borg. Hence, my reputation for being the Advent Grinch, or the Advent Nazi.
Is it such a big deal? It is, after all, “small stuff,” when the grand sweep of the Paschal Mystery is considered. The answer is … No … and Yes.
Failure to keep an Excruciatingly Correct Advent will certainly not keep anyone out of the Kingdom of God. It won’t, in and of itself, subtract one gem from anybody’s heavenly crown. And I don’t think Jesus even gives it a second thought (though, I would like to think, party animal that he was while inhabiting this planet in human form, that he might not be above engaging in some playful repartee on the subject).
That said, we do well to remember the purpose of any feast day, fast day, or liturgical season—Advent, Christmas, or the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost—or, for that matter, any liturgical practice, discipline, gesture, or posture. They are all tools. They are all means to an end. They are, along with the sacraments, the scriptures, the prayers of the saints, and the communal life of the Church, means of grace that are intended to perfect our holiness, to make us more like Jesus, to fit us for life in the unfiltered presence of God, to enable us to look the Father in the eye and not be pulverized because when he sees us he sees his own Son, into whose image we have been perfectly configured.
As a pastor, it is my duty to keep all the tools sharp, oiled, and in good working order. Some of them are used everyday and are effective with a majority of the souls entrusted to my care. Others are used less frequently, and may work only with a limited number of people. As a pastor, it is my duty to encourage people to make connections between what they do in church and how they live in their homes and in the world, to see a coherence between liturgy and life. Holding up the formative value of keeping Advent and celebrating Christmas in the traditional manner is part of both those duties. Yeah, it’s small stuff. But sometimes small stuff is worth breaking a sweat over.