Tuesday, December 01, 2009

On the Importance of Small Stuff

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.


Bruce Robison said...

Just don't lose Zu-Zu's petals, Dan. Advent blessings.



Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. Dan:

I am so glad you posted this, because I believe Advent is NOT small stuff, and I strive to keep it both at St. Philip's and in my home. I also love the envisioning of the parousia in 1st Advent and later John the Baptist. As I said in my homily on Sunday, those who follow the liturgical seasons receive a special blessing--a GIFT of four weeks away from the secular culture to prepare our hearts both for the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth and the Second Coming of Christ. Thanks be to God!

Advent Blessings!

Deacon Francie

Allison Elaine said...

Ah, yes. I was raised in Connecticut, in a Broad Church parish that had a strong connection the Scotch-Irish who had worked in the mills. Once a year we would see the local Society of Orange, wearing sashes, sitting together in church. Our main Sunday services were, of course, Morning Prayer three times a month, and Communion once or twice. (I disliked Communion Sundays because we did so much kneeling, and it was hard on the knees.)

In the mid 60's, our curate (the first priest I had ever known who used "Father" rather than "Mister" as his title) told us that the first candle of the Advent Wreath was lit for [here he named one of the prophets, and my guess would be Malachi, whose lesson we would have heard at Morning Prayer], the second for [again a guess, Isaiah], the third (pink) for Mary, although the lesson would have been about Elibabeth, and the fourth Sunday's candle was for John the Baptist. There was no "Christ Candle" in this wreath. I may have heard sermons on the Four Last Things at some point, but I'm sure they went over my head.

In the early 70's I was a college student in a rather High Church parish in upstate New York, and we had Mass (another new term to me) every Sunday, thank you very much. I have no doubt we heard about the Four Last Things at least once, but I can't recall anything more specific. However, I well remember a guest preacher, an extraordinarily old priest, long retired, who preached with passion on the folly of putting a fifth "Christ" candle in the Advent Wreath. A proper Advent Wreath had four candles, for the four Sundays of Advent, and that was that!

During Advent, my childhood home held Advent calendars (revealing a bible scene and a bible verse on each day), a candle that was marked with (I think) 25 marks so we could burn it down a little each day, in addition to the various holiday decorations that my mother brought out once the thanksgiving decorations were put away. I loved it all. My childhood home had both a piano and my sister, who could play it, so we often sang Advent hymns in Advent.

Now, as an adult, I realize that many of these practices allowed the adults to keep the kids calm during the lead-in to Christmas. As the candle burned down, and we opened days on the Advent calendar, we could see that Christmas really was coming.

Then, on Christmas Eve, the local television station included reports from NORAD of radar tracking Santa. And on Christmas morning, there were ashy footprints in front of the fireplace, and Santa's milk and cookies were gone, and so were the carrots for his reindeer.

Because purple was the common liturgical color, Advent and Lent were paired in my mind. Of course I thought Advent was a penitential season, but the way in which we lived it at home was the way in which I understood Advent to mean waiting and preparation.

My current parish furnishes straw with which families may soften the empty manger in their nativity sets at home. Straws may be added by any member who sees another member perform a good deed or kind act. We talk about preparing gifts, and about preparing ourselves to be gifts for Jesus on Christmas Day. We help the kids make Jesse trees and Advent wreaths, and send them home, too.

I pray that the children in church today will have their own rich memories of Advent. Someday they may get all grumpy because things have changed from the good old days. That's okay, too. In fact, that's the way it's supposed to be. Just like an Advent wreath with four candles, not five.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge, your thoughts and your experiences. You continue to inspire me, educate me and deepen my faith. God bless you.

RFSJ said...

Dan - thank you for this meditation. I hadn't heard of the Epiphany bonfire though, so I'm going to propose it at my parish. But on Sunday as part of "Slow Down, Get Quiet, It's Advent!" I suggested folks not attend one party *before* 12/25, buy one less gift this year, make space for even 5 minutes of quiet a day, or move one's own party till after 12/25. Year by year, I find myself appreciating Advent even more then Lent.

Randy Muller said...

Re "commencement [of the cultural celebration of Christmas] has progressively invaded all of December"

Around Sacramento, California, it began preceding Thanksgiving about 10-20 years ago. A few years ago, it began on Halloween.

This year, I saw some Christmas decorations go up after Labor Day.

Allison Elaine said...

I reread my earlier post, and was shocked to find that my memories of home life went from Advent to Santa! Believe me, my parents raised us to know "the reason for the season" - but my Christmas memories are focused in Church rather than the home. Christmas pageants (yes, usually during the last week of Advent, sigh) and beautiful church services on Christmas Day left no doubt about the birth of Jesus being the focus of the season. There would have been a lovely Nativity scene at Church at some point. I sang in the choir, and I recall color, lights, mystery, and joy.

Yes, the liturgical Advent is usually ignored by the secular world. But the secular world has reinvented its own "advent grinches" - all of those who complain that it's just not right to have Christmas decorations out before Christmas starts... the day after Thanksgiving.

A friend of mine grew up in Venezuela. She remembers roller-skating in what she describes as the Twelve Days of Christmas - the 12 days leading up to Christmas. I think there is a similar period in Mexico in which the journey of the Holy Family is reenacted, including rejection by innkeepers.

Maybe we should allow and respect our non-liturgical friends' calendar, just as we acknowledge and respect the calendar of our Eastern Orthodox friends, or admire the traditions in othe rcultures. In a sense, we are a minority in a society that really does celebrate Christmas from the day after Thanksgiving through, roughly, the New Year. We can honor and share the joy of our friends, and at the same time look forward to Epiphany. And why am I the only person who wants to leave my lights up until Candlemas? Really, what is the world coming to?

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Scott Kammerer said...

Thanks for the reflection, Dan.

I come from a similar church background to yours but have come to love and embrace Advent as well. We make sure to instruct our young children in the weekly themes of advent, meditate on the advent wreath, and I personally avoid wishing anyone a "Merry Christmas" until Christmas Eve. My parish uses a rich library of advent-appropriate hymns and choruses for worship. We also do Christmastide "right" and have the big bonfire on Epiphany (everyone brings their trees from home!)

But I also have to admit - my decorations (including the tree and lights) went up the Saturday after Christmas and I have my car radio set to the all-Christmas carols station. Perhaps it's liturgically suspect according to the church calendar... but I can't help adopting these elements into my Advent observance. Frankly it wouldn't feel right, like I was forgetting something.

Brandon Filbert said...

Actually, the sign said then (and still says):

"Don't sweat the small stuff."

The rest is an addition which may be the result of the intervening years. However, it does have the advantage of doing away with the necessary question of determining exactly what the small stuff is...

Not meaning to adumbrate your otherwise fine post,


Daniel Martins said...

Ahhh, I am so busted! Yes, years attenuate memory. However, I think my addition to the text may actually be rooted in oral tradition--if I'm not mistaken, Fr Brandon, from the lips of your predecessor.

Brandon Filbert said...

That is precisely the joy and bane of oral tradition! Thank you for clueing me into the "living" nature of this wooden oracle! It remains proudly (if inelegantly) on display in the sacristy.

Blessings on O Adonai, Fr. Dan!