Friday, December 25, 2009

A Christmas Gem

This is one of my Christmas favorites, from
the 1959 cantata Hodie by Ralph Vaughan
Williams. Here's the text (the first verse is
anonymous; the second is by the composer's
wife, Ursula Wood Vaughan Williams):

No sad thought his soul affright
Sleep it is that
maketh night;’

Let no murmur nor rude wind

To his slumbers prove unkind:

But a quire of angels make

His dreams of heaven, and let him wake

To as many joys as can

In this world befall a man.

Promise fills the sky with light,
Stars and angels dance in flight;
Joy of heaven shall now unbind
Chains of evil from mankind,
Love and joy their power shall break,
And for a new born prince’s sake;
Never since the world began
Such a light such dark did span.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

O Emmanuel

… and finally:

O Emmanuel, our King and our Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations and their Salvation: Come and save us, O Lord our God.

…and the very familiar:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

It’s been 23 years, but I remember enough of my seminary Hebrew to be able to see each part precisely: “with – us – God”, customarily (and more felicitously) rendered, “God with us.”

For the first time since 1988, I’m not preaching on Christmas (or the eve thereof) this year. I have a homiletically competent (and then some) Assistant who needs the experience, so it just seemed the right thing to do. In thinking back over the preparation and delivery of twenty Christmas sermons, I’m aware that I’ve never taken my cue from the actual gospel reading for Christmas Eve—the familiar account from Luke (that still sounds not-quite-right in anything but the King James translation), with its decree going out from Caesar Augustus and its full-up inn, and its shepherds keeping watch, and its manger and swaddling clothes. This is where the narrative poetry is, and I love poking around in it.

But for preaching? For preaching, I’ve always been inevitably drawn to the cosmically mystical (mystically cosmic?) poetry of the prologue to John’s gospel, which is appointed for the Mass of Christmas morning, and for the following Sunday. At Lessons & Carols this past Sunday night, I read it, and could barely keep my composure. This is the gospel, not of a nativity, but of an incarnation. It doesn’t run the risk of ever being thought of as cute, and I can’t imagine how anyone could ever work it into a children’s pageant. But it is as shattering a piece of literature as has ever been penned. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt (literally, “pitched his tent”) among us.”

In what seems like a previous lifetime, in the early-to-mid 1970s, I was a graduate student in musicology. I wrote a 200-page thesis on twentieth century musical settings (unaccompanied) of the texts of the Latin Mass. In the roughly 500-year history of the Latin Mass as a musical form, certain stylistic conventions became virtually de rigueur for composers of different nationalities and different eras. The strongest of these conventions concerned the section of the Credo (Nicene Creed) that speak of the Incarnation. From et incarnatus est (“and he became incarnate”) through et homo factus est (“and was made Man”), the most complicated polyphony would suddenly slow down and become crystal clear, as if to say, “Listen to this. This is the really important part!”

So, in the years when it falls to me to seek a homiletical Muse for Christmas Eve, I invariably end up asking myself, “How can I explain the Incarnation in some fresh way? What image or metaphor can I use that will get through to somebody who’s maybe never thought about Christmas in this way? What can I say that will at least evoke the shocking enormity of the scandal—the scandal of the infinite becoming finite, the eternal becoming time-bound, the omnipresent occupying a quite definable set of coordinates on somebody’s GPS system, the scandal of the God who made us becoming one of us?"

Emmanuel. With us … God.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

O Rex Gentium

The penultimate of the Great O Antiphons:

O King of the nations, and their Desire, you are the cornerstone who makes us both one: Come and save us all, the creature whom you have fashioned from clay.

…and its metrical paraphrase twin:

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.

The Magnificat, to which the seven antiphons are attached in their native environment, is one of the most political texts in all of holy scripture. It speaks of the powerful being cast down and the humble being raised up, of the sated being deprived and the hungry being filled. And of the seven antiphons, this one is perhaps the closest match to the canticle in its political overtones.

To the ears of a 21st century American, steeped since childhood in the values of democracy and egalitarianism, any political system that involves a King (“Rex”) is suspect from the get-go. And if that monarch purports to rule over “the nations,” the problem is only compounded. We are fond of peace, but fonder still of liberty, having witnessed the character of peace that is purchased by the acceptance of despotism.

That said, we’ve got some serious problems, and perhaps ought not to be picky about the form in which help arrives, even if it takes the form of a King. We are, in the words of the collect from four Sundays ago, “divided and enslaved by sin.” We experience this division and slavery in every dimension of our lives. We witnessed it last week in the enmity between developed and developing nations at the climate change summit in Copenhagen. We witness it when an estranged mother and father square off in a courtroom over custody of the child whose parents they are. It’s a pervasive fact of our lives. It’s a political problem, and a political problem needs a political solution.

We need to be “freed and brought together.” And in the providence of God, the vehicle of our liberation and reconciliation is the “gracious rule” of Christ our King. Whatever our political conditioning may be, in our heart of hearts, we know this to be true. Indeed, we yearn for it. As many of us sang two days ago, we know Jesus to be the “dear desire of every nation” and the “joy of every longing heart.” (Hymnal 1982, #66) Unlike the iron grip of tyranny that established the Pax Romana in the first century, which established peace by means of rule, Christ establishes his rule by means of peace. Reconciliation is his calling card (“the cornerstone who makes us both one”), which explains why he is the “Desire of nations.”

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Monday, December 21, 2009

O Oriens

rectory sunrise And now we come to number five of seven:

O Dayspring, brightness of light eternal, and Sun of Righeousness: Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Or, in the familiar parlance of the hymn version:

O come, thou Dayspring from on high,
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadow put to flight.

I’m not a morning person. Truth to tell, the most difficult decision I make on any given day is to get out of bed. Still, there’s something compelling about a sunrise. Living on the western edge of the eastern time zone, it’s not hard for even a slacker like me to be up at the crack of dawn. I snapped the picture above out the bedroom window with my iPhone a few days ago at about 7:30 AM, realizing that it was a fragile fleeting moment.

Sunrise is not only luminous, but also numinous. To our primordial forebears, every evening must have been traumatic. They eventually learned that what goes around comes around, but that initial panic over the onset of darkness attached itself to an unsuspecting strand in our communal psychic DNA. So we have a subliminal squeamishness, at least (for some it’s an abject fear), about darkness, and a corresponding relief when that darkness disappears.

One of the skills that one develops in the practice of Christian prayer is to hallow the cycles of time. If every sunset is a trifle annoying because—who knows?—maybe this time it’s permanent, then every time we lay our heads on a pillow and allow ourselves to fall asleep, it’s a risky move, because—who knows?—maybe this time it will be permanent. Every act of falling asleep is, in effect, a rehearsal for the Big Sleep. Since, barring an imminent parousia, it’s an inescapable eventuality, we could probably do with the practice.

But if that much is true for every sunset, then there is a parallel truth in every sunrise. The Monday collect for Morning Prayer cuts to the chase:

O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night, and turns the shadow of death into morning …

Every sunrise is a foretaste of “that great gettin’-up mornin’” (I’m obviously married to a choir director). Every time we entrust ourselves to sleep at night and, in fact, do wake up the next morning, it's an anticipation of the resurrection of the body that we proclaim in the creeds. Every time my feet hit the floor as I roll out of bed (always reluctantly), I’ve conditioned myself to sign myself with the cross and recollect my identity as one who has been baptized into the dying the rising of Christ. A little while later, during the Morning Office, these words from the Song of Zechariah cross my lips:

In the tender compassion of our God * the dawn from on high shall break upon us, To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, * and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Cranmer’s original Anglicization of this text rendered “dawn” as “dayspring.” In the conventional sense, I’m still not a morning person, and that isn’t likely to change. But scratch the surface, and morning is my favorite time ever, because I have been claimed by the Dayspring from on high who has broken in upon us.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

O Clavis David

The fourth of the seven Big O’s:

O Key of David, and Scepter of the house of Israel, you open and no one can shut, you shut and no one can open: Come and bring the captives out of the prison house, those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

…and the same thing paraphrased for rhyme and meter:

O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery.

In the summer of 1987, after my first year in seminary, I spent the better part of three months as a chaplain intern at the Mendota State Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. (It was part of wretched exercise called Clinical Pastoral Education, still required of most seminarians across denominational lines.) The patients on my unit were there because they were deemed to be a danger either to themselves or to others. In other words, they were real nut cases: schizophrenia, bipolarity, paranoia, multiple personality, various delusions, and some stuff I’m probably forgetting.

As crazy as they were, however, most of them were able, at any given moment, to interact with one another and with staff members in ways that seemed quite … well … normal. Now, combine that with the fact that some of the staff were pretty crazy themselves, and the situation gets very “interesting.” A neutral third-party observer might have been sometimes hard pressed to distinguish the patients from the staff! The only way to tell for sure was to watch and see who was able to pull a key out of his or her pocket and exit the building.

I, of course, had a key. And I have to say, every time I used that key and left the building, I did so with conscious gratitude. During those three (long) months, it never got routine. I was always aware of how privileged I was to be able to leave the surreal world of the mental hospital unit behind me for a few hours. Ironically, it was in the act of leaving them that I felt the most compassion for the patients, none of whom had asked to be paranoid or suicidal or sociopathic. But there they were, locked in. And there I was, holding a key.

On a more cosmic scale, however, I’m just as much a captive as those mental patients, and the key I used to separate myself from them would be of no avail to me, or to anyone else, in the captivity we all share as human beings. The “prison house” in which we are held is built of pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, avarice (greed), and sloth. Its walls are lined with deceit, theft, adultery, and murder, and reinforced with resentment, bitterness, exploitation, and oppression.

There is only one key that can unlock its door—the Key of David, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Anointed One of God, the Messiah. We who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death eagerly—no, anxiously—await the arrival of that Key, the Key who will both liberate us from our captivity and permanently “close the path the misery.”

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

O Radix Jesse

Great O Antiphon number three:
O Root of Jesse, you stand as an ensign to the peoples, before you kings will shut their mouths, and nations bow in worship:  Come and deliver us, and tarry not.
or (from the hymn version) …
O come, thou Branch of Jesse’s tree,
free them from Satan’s tyranny
that trust thy mighty power to save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.
The first rendition is perhaps truer to the original Latin (radix=root), but the metrical paraphrase may be more symbolically accurate. Jesse, of course, is the father of proto-messiah King David, and a distant ancestor of Jesus. So Jesus can be understood as proleptically “contained” in Jesse, the one who is his “root,” and because of that “containment,” Jesse can be understood as “an ensign to the peoples” (Isaiah 11:10).
Jesus, then, in the terms of the hymn version of the antiphon, is the “branch of Jesse’s tree.” “Branch” could just as easily be rendered “shoot” or “rod.” The picture at the top of this post—snapped during my visit to the Holy Land last January--is of an olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the east wall of Jerusalem. Olives have been cultivated there continuously for at least 3000 years, so the tree in the photo is of the same genetic stock as the ones that stood there in the time of Jesus, and, a millennium earlier, in the time of David. Look closely and you’ll see exactly what inspired Isaiah’s poetic oracle—an old and gnarled trunk (the “root”) out of which springs a younger branch heading straight up (the “shoot”).
This third of the seven antiphons definitely takes the latent sense of urgency implied in the first two and “kicks it up a notch.” The human race is in a world of hurt. Call it what you will—Satan, the power of Sin and Death, tyranny, oppression, exploitation, the White Witch of Narnia—it matters little. And we’re tired of it. We want something better, and we know something better is possible. “Come and deliver us,” we cry, “and tarry not.” The “branch and flower of Jesse’s stem” (Hymnal 1982, #307) is indeed our hope and our salvation.
Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Friday, December 18, 2009

O Adonai

The second of the Great O Antiphons:

O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, you appeared in the bush to Moses in a flame of fire, and gave him the Law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.


O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times didst give the law,
in cloud, and majesty, and awe.

If my Baby Boomer generation has trust issues (see one post upstream), we also have issues with authority. We have a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” a default inclination to question authority figures and their authoritative statements. So if you want to interest us in God, portraying God as a law-giver is probably not your best angle.

And I’m not only a Baby Boomer, but the product of the vigorous trans-denominational (and non-denominational) evangelical subculture of DuPage County, Illinois in the 1950s and 60s. I cut my theological teeth on the Reformation nostrums of “grace alone” and “faith alone.” “The letter [i.e. the letter of the law] killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.” (II Corinthians 3:6) Law is so … “Old Testament.” Christians are saved by Christ through faith. What use do we have for the law? We have read Galatians, after all.

So here I am, a Baby Boomer child of “grace and Spirit” evangelical Christianity. What am I to make of a liturgical text that celebrates the giving of the Law to Moses “in cloud, and majesty, and awe”?

Getting past “authority” and “law” in a fruitful way requires what we used to call (back in the ‘90s) a “paradigm shift.” It requires breaking the association we have between those words and the answer our parents used to give whenever we asked “Why?”—“Because I said so, that’s why!” It requires breaking the association we have between those words and the image of Bull Connor using fire hoses and attack dogs on non-violent civil rights protesters in Selma.

Instead of picturing “authority” as a parent, or a university administrator, or a sheriff wearing mirror sunglasses and a Smoky Bear hat, we do better to picture one who is “a leading authority in her field,” or better yet, an author. God has authority, not because he arbitrarily arrogated it to himself, or because he’s omnipotent and can “smite” anybody who opposes him, but because he’s the Author. He wrote the story. He conceived the plot. He named the characters. He made the props. It’s his theater and his show. That’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. It just is. I may find John Grisham more appealing than Dan Brown, but if I want insight into The DaVinci Code (perish the thought!), it’s Dan Brown that I need to be talking to, because he’s the author of the book.

So, instead of thinking of “law”, then, as a a statute in some criminal or civil or ecclesiastical code, we do better to think of “law” in terms of “the laws of nature.” For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. A molecule of water consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. The square root of nine is three. These laws are neither good, bad, nor indifferent. They just are. They mediate reality, and when we understand them, they enable us to bend reality to our benefit.

From this perspective, for the Author to “give” us the Law is a consummate act of love and mercy. It is literally an apocalypse—an unveiling, a revelation. The transaction between YHWH and Moses on Sinai’s height is an emblem of God’s desire for us to have the tools by which to successfully navigate the cosmic reality (that is, both physical and spiritual) in which we live. Per St Paul, the law is not the means of our deliverance from the dominion of sin and death. But it’s not a bad measure of our progress toward that end. It’s an invaluable roadmap of the territory in which we live and move and have our being.

Now bring on Psalm 119. “The law of the Lord is dearer to me than thousands in gold or silver.” (v.72)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

O Sapientia

Today marks what we might think of as the “home stretch” of the season of Advent, the final run-up to Christmas. It’s the day when, in the great western liturgical tradition, we begin to include the Great ‘O’ Antiphons in our prayers—classically framing the singing or recitation of Magnificat (Song of Mary, Luke 1:46-55) at Evening Prayer (Evensong, Vespers).

These texts are veritable treasures of concise spiritual insight. They are compelling expressions of the barely-contained yearning for the revelation of God’s glory and God’s kingdom that is the Church’s corporate formal mood and attitude during the days prior to the feast.

Today’s antiphon is O Sapientia:

O Wisdom, you came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and reach from one end of the earth to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Or, in the form in which we know it from the familiar hymn to which all seven have been adapted:

O come, thou wisdom from on high, who orderest all things mightily; to us the path of knowledge show, and teach us in her ways to go.

At one level, wisdom is standard equipment to human nature. The taxonomical name for our species, indeed, is homo sapiens, which might plausibly be paraphrased as “Wise Guy.” It’s part of the mark that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. It testifies to the imago dei—the image of Godwhich we all bear by default. We are able to contemplate our own identity, and integrate our past, including the past of our forebears that we experience only vicariously, with the present and the future. This is beyond the reach of the canines and felines that share our homes with us, and even beyond the great apes who are our closest biological relatives.

At another level, however—and obviously—we are anything but wise. The imago dei is severely damaged by the primordial act of imprudence that is represented by the tale of a serpent and a piece of fruit. At this level, wisdom is some dynamic combination of innate gift (have we not all known children who are “wise beyond their years”?) and acquired virtue (itself the product of another dynamic combination of “hard knocks” experience and infused divine grace).

Never has information been as readily available as it is today. Wisdom involves knowing what to do with the information we have. And never, it seems, has wisdom been in such short supply. As a child in Sunday School, I was taught to admire the young King Solomon for choosing the gift of wisdom over the gift of wealth, and reminded that, because he chose wisdom, he was given wealth as well. In middle age, I see the … well, the wisdom of Solomon’s choice ever more clearly. Mine is the generation that said, “Never trust anybody over 30.” Until we all turned 30, that is. Then it was quickly, “Never trust anybody under 30.” And that threshold keeps getting raised the older I get!

Alas, I am lately aware that my world and my country (and, to a lesser extent, my church) are being run by people who are significantly younger than I am. This is scary. I’ve always thought it was the “grownups” who are in charge, and the “grownups” are older than I am. They have the wisdom to know the answers, to be able to use information properly. But the “grownups” are mostly now either pushing up daisies or playing Bingo in Florida.

So this prayer for the wisdom of the Most High to come and take charge is probably more palpably important to me than ever. There’s an awful lot that needs to be “mightily and sweetly” ordered.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

And the Beat Goes On

The news is barely more than a day old and I already feel like I'm Johnny-come-lately by weighing in even now. I'm not sure I have anything original to say on the matter, but, if not, then it's still a chorus that needs to be joined.

The Diocese of Los Angeles elected a second Suffragan Bishop yesterday, the Reverend Canon Mary Glasspool of Maryland. It would be largely unremarkable but for the fact that she is an open and partnered lesbian, and so the event of her election is the next large domino to fall in a chain reaction that was set in motion nearly seven years ago with the election of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire.

I have to say at the outset that Mary Glasspool is a gracious and competent woman and I have no reason to doubt that she has substantial gifts for ministry. I got to know her just a bit at General Convention in 2006, when she served as a legislative aide to Special Committee 26 (Inter-Anglican Relations), and she and I shared a brief reminiscence of those heady days just this past July in Anaheim. So there truly is "nothing personal" in anything that follows.

A really telescoped selective history: In 2006, General Convention said, in effect, "Oops, we goofed. We made Gene Robinson a bishop without taking fully into account the effect our action would have on the rest of the Anglican Communion. Our bad. Sorry." (A160). We also said, in effect,"We're going to hold off on doing it again. For a while, at any rate." (B033) Then, in 2009, we said, "Hey, let's get real. We all know that God has called partnered LGBT people to the episcopate before, and will probably do it again. When that happens, we're going to be ready." (D025)

Now, before we formally debated D025, the Archbishop of Canterbury told the convention, in effect, "I really hope you don't do this. In fact, I'm asking nicely: Please don't do this." After we went and did it anyway, the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies (aka the Co-Primates) fired a letter off to Dr Williams (who had since returned to Lambeth Palace) earnestly denying that D025 actually changed anything, that it was manifestly not an abrogation of B033. "The moratorium won't be lifted until we actually do something that lifts it," they said (once again, in effect).

Well, "something" has now been done. At least by the clergy and lay delegates of the Diocese of Los Angeles (the diocese in which, for the record, I was confirmed in 1975). Before the moratorium of B033 can be said to have been formally lifted, Canon Glasspool must actually be consecrated, and before that can happen, a majority of the Standing Committees and a majority of the bishops-with-jurisdiction must consent to the election.

It was with these contingencies in mind that Rowan Williams issued a statement only some eleven hours after the election. It is uncharacteristically brief and to the point:
The election of Mary Glasspool by the Diocese of Los Angeles as suffragan bishop elect raises very serious questions not just for the Episcopal Church and its place in the Anglican Communion, but for the Communion as a whole.

The process of selection however is only part complete. The election has to be confirmed, or could be rejected, by diocesan bishops and diocesan standing committees. That decision will have very important implications.

The bishops of the Communion have collectively acknowledged that a period of gracious restraint in respect of actions which are contrary to the mind of the Communion is necessary if our bonds of mutual affection are to hold.
The nub of the matter is this, I believe: The Archbishop is asking--one might even say "pleading with," given his proclivity for British diplomatic understatement--those bodies and individuals with a role in the consent process to withhold such consent, for the greater good of the unity and vitality of the rest of the Anglican Communion.

As one might imagine, Dr Williams has already been excoriated by both the left and the right. The left considers him a quisling, a moral coward, lacking the courage of his convictions, kowtowing to the forces of bigotry and fundamentalism of the worst sort. The right considers him a toothless dog who barks at all the right times (though someone timidly, so as to raise the suspicion that he's not really doing so with conviction), but is incapable of chomping down on an intruder's leg. Lots of talk, but no follow-through.

Sadly, this is a script--both Rowan's statement and the responses to it--that could have been written accurately before the events actually transpired. There is nothing here that is new or surprising. (Even the election itself was a virtual foregone conclusion; if not Mary Glasspool, it would have been somebody else later.) This is why it has all the qualities of few more frames in the slow-motion train wreck that is the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. One may criticize the Archbishop's words and deeds--as indeed many are; Rowan is taking hits from both directions--but he certainly cannot be faulted for lack of consistency. The conservatives who complain, "Great bark, but we'd like to see some actual biting take place" are quite correct in not expecting their worthy opponents to be displaying Canterburian toothmarks any time soon. From Day One it has been Rowan's position that, if any "discipline" is going to take place, it will be exercised by the organic processes of the whole communion, and not by the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury. At present, those organic forces are following a trajectory that will lead to an Anglican Covenant. That is the mechanism by which TEC will suffer any consequences for her recalcitrant behavior. Some may argue that the Covenant will end up as toothless as the Archbishop, and they may well be correct. But for the time being, the Covenant is the next vessel with which the Episcopal Church is on a collision course. If the election of Mary Glasspool hastens that collision, perhaps it is an occasion for gratitude, even among those whose default inclination is to be dismayed by it. We can't start picking up the pieces until the debris stops flying.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

A Question for Debate

RESOLVED: "Anglicanism is the least religious religion."

From here.

Discuss amongst yourselves.

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.