Advent and Christmas

Advent

Last month we looked at some of the changes made to the church and liturgy to enable us to keep Advent. A season of Advent seems to have originated in Gaul in the fifth or sixth century as a period of preparation, first for Epiphany when baptisms were often administered, and only later for Christmas. Its length varied from three weeks to forty days. We now keep a short season of four Sundays which may reduce Advent to three weeks only.

The themes of these Sundays are continuing our ‘history’ as retold from the ninth Sunday before Christmas. The readings of Advent 1 are full of prophetic hope of the coming of Christ, not just at Christmas but also at the end of time. Advent 2 emphasises the Old Testament witness to the coming of Christ, but has also become known as Bible Sunday (initiated by Thomas Cranmer in the 16th century). The question arises whether the combination of these two themes does true justice to either. Advent 3 brings us ever closer to the coming of Christ with the theme ‘The Forerunner’ that is, John the Baptist who proclaimed the Saviour. The story then reaches that cliff-hanging moment with Advent 4’s theme of the Annunciation, we wait with Mary for the birth of Jesus. We come to the end of Advent certain that the promise of a Saviour will be fulfilled.

This Advent we will use again the traditional Advent wreath of five candles - one lit on each Sunday of Advent and the final centre candle on Christmas Day. The candles remind us of the approach of the light of the world, Jesus our Saviour. Various colours have been used for Advent wreaths, three purple and one pink with white at the centre. Purple being the liturgical colour of the season and pink on the third Sunday known as Gaudete Sunday, or day of rejoicing as we remember that Christ has come before and redeemed us. Alternatively four blue candles and one gold - blue is also used as a liturgical colour in Advent to show that the season is less penitential than Lent. Gold is for the King who comes. All white candles, this has historical precedence because the use of any colour other than white in vestments and hangings was a later introduction. Four red and one white candles are also used, this seems to be a fairly recent idea, perhaps because of red’s association with Christmas.

At St Peter’s we also start Advent with an Advent Carol Service. This gives an opportunity to concentrate our thoughts on Advent themes in words and music. Some readings are non-biblical and this also helps us to relate the theological meaning of Advent to our life and experience in the world.

Christmas

This is a relatively late church festival, perhaps 4th century. In the West December 25th was kept as the day of the celebration of the incarnation of Christ, but in the East it was the January 6th. It seems likely that these dates were chosen as a reaction by Christians to pagan festivals held on these days (the winter solstice). Different calendrical calculations in the East and West accounting for the different dates. An alternative view is that the date was calculated back from the date of Christ’s death. East and West are now in line, celebrating the birth on December 25th and the Epiphany on January 6th.

The removal of Advent austerity enriches the Christmas liturgy. The church is decorated festively, the hangings return and are bright gold to celebrate the birth of the King. A Christmas crib in some form is always a central part of the decorations. It is thought that St Francis made the first crib. He tethered an ox and an ass by a rocky cave (this is the nature of the stable in Bethlehem) and used real people for the characters. Perhaps this is the origin of the tradition of animals in the stable for there is no mention of them in the biblical narrative.

The Eucharist loses its penitential mood. It is the heart of our celebration of the incarnation. Christ lives today in bread and wine. We omit the commandments and the Kyrie and sing again the Gloria in Excelsis which begins with the angels song to the shepherds ‘Glory to God in the Highest, and peace to his people on earth.’

The Gospel becomes the pivotal reading for the Christmas and Epiphany seasons and from Christmas Day until Pentecost sets out the life and ministry of Jesus in more or less chronological order.

Between Christmas and the First Sunday following, three important Greater Holy Days occur. In some churches there would be a Eucharist on each of these days so that they are not lost to our rhythm of worship and the story. For St Stephen and The Holy Innocents church hangings would change to red reminding us of the shedding of the blood of the martyrs

December 26th is the Feast of St Stephen (p817 ASB). He was the first Christian martyr. The day is of course commonly known as Boxing Day. The name goes back to medieval times when alms boxes were placed in every church to collect alms for the poor, which were opened on Boxing Day.

December 27th is the Feast of St John the Evangelist (p819 ASB).

December 28th is the commemoration of the massacre of The Holy Innocents by King Herod (p822 ASB). In our current days when genocide occurs all too regularly we would do well to reflect on these readings.

There is so much more to the story of Christ’s birth than the readings at the Christmas Eucharists permit us to hear, that there is much to be said for reading the story for ourselves. We spend so much time preparing for Christmas Day that the time afterwards can be an anti-climax. In reality of course, for Christians the birth of Christ is a beginning not an end. Perhaps we need to find a way to at least celebrate for the twelve days of Christmas the wonder, the mystery and the glory of God entering our world in human form.

Helen Walker, November 1996


http://www.stpetersnottingham.org/seasons/christmas.htm
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997