I went to two services yesterday, the first Sunday of Advent.
The first was at a local Baptist church. It was the sort of place that a few decades ago would have had no particular place for Advent at all. Perhaps there’d have been a Christmas pageant and end-of-year family service 10 days or so before Christmas, but nothing at all of the older liturgical tradition. This is no caricature: I was part of that congregation forty years ago (in fact, my father was the pastor). And it wouldn’t have been at all unusual in New Zealand Baptist congregations.
Things are different now, although mostly dependent on the whims, tastes, and emphases of the individual pastor. The Advent wreath, with a further candle lighted each Sunday, now seems common enough, with reference to the modern themes of hope, love, joy, and peace. Beyond that, references seem to be almost entirely about getting started on the Christmas season – a phrase distinctly heard yesterday – with apparently no awareness that, liturgically and traditionally, the season of Christmas starts not now, but at Christmas. Christmas Day begins a season of feasting and celebration, rather than marking its end.
Consistent with this, at the service I attended there was a sign on the front door “24 days to Christmas” ( I assume it will be updated each week, if not each day), the manger scene was prominently displayed (apparently an Epiphany one rather than a Christmas one, given the presence of the wise men and absence of the shepherds) and the Christmas tree was already decorated. It does seem quite strange – perhaps just captive to the way our secular society, with little or no belief in the substance, makes such a fuss of the build-up to Christmas. It certainly won’t be unusual, and I notice that the local churches’ (liturgical one included) combined Christmas carol service is occurring next Sunday night, still 2.5 weeks before Christmas.
We were perhaps fortunate yesterday that there were no Christmas carols. One was announced as such, but in fact it was “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, traditionally an Advent hymn. A tick for those who planned the service. On the other hand, a cross for the complete absence of readings from Scripture.
More noticeable, of course, was the way in which the traditional Advent themes – death, judgment, heaven, and hell – have not come with the Baptist (and similar) interest in making something of Advent. Nothing of these was heard, or hinted at, in our service yesterday. They are serious, confronting, themes – uncomfortable ones perhaps, and yet that was surely the point of what is, at least in some traditions, a quasi-penitential season. We’ll celebrate the Incarnation in due course, but how much powerfully if in the preceding weeks preachers and those planning services point us to what is to come – that we all face death, we will stand before God’s judgment, and a separation of sheep and goats lies ahead. The reality of sin (a word rarely used in this congregation), and of darkness, and yet also – starting amid the darkness – the hope of the ages, not just the Messiah who came once, but the risen Saviour who promises to return and to restore all things to the Father.
Last night I attended the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul’s service of lessons and carols for Advent, “Darkness to Light”. I’ve been attending this service most years for several decades now. It was once quite hard to get a seat – albeit not quite the (very recent) description in the article I linked to earlier
The Advent service at Salisbury Cathedral, for example, is so oversubscribed these days that it’s repeated on three consecutive evenings, starting on the Friday before Advent Sunday.
The beauty and profundity of the service, the excellence of the music (choir and organ) are apparently unchanged, but numbers have been dropping. I reckon there might have been 250 people there last night, in a building that could readily take 1000 or more. That is the sadness of New Zealand Christianity – between the serious Christians and those who come as much for the music and tradition, the numbers are just no longer there.
The service begins in the Old Testament and proceeds, by reading and song, to the new. It looks forward to the first coming of Jesus, but also to his second coming. It begins with sin, often desolation. There is both lamentation and rejoicing. But a clear sense that sin is a barrier between God and man, that our king and judge – become our redeemer- is coming
For he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth;
and with righteousness to judge the world, and the people with his truth
We prayed the Lord’s Prayer – with its regularly repeated reminder of our own need for forgiveness and the mandate laid on us to forgive others – and a priest prayed the traditional (and profound) Collect for the first Sunday of Advent (at least according to the order of the Church of England, to be repeated each day in Advent).
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.
All of which would have been good, except that the same priest chose to at least partly eviscerate the heart of the prayer, by omitting the words “to judge both the quick and the dead”. Perhaps it was an accidental oversight – I don’t know her so can’t ask – but whether it accidental or deliberate, what an omission. We come, rightly, to count on God’s grace and mercy in Christ, made available to us by the cross, and yet we cannot lose sight of the relationship in which we stand before God. Called, chosen, and drawn. And yet also those who will each stand before the judgment seat of the Father. Those who each day, each week, need to search ourselves, in light of the Spirit and Scripture, and confess and repent our sin. In the old phrase, to keep short accounts with God.
What is it, I wonder, that modern clergy and worship leaders are afraid of, or think congregations won’t – in time – respond positively, penitently, to? Why feed a faith and practice so therapeutic and upbeat that it can lose sight of – or at very least minimise – the very reason for the gospel – that breach sin put between man and God, uncrossable except by God’s grace and mercy, a God of grace who yet us off to repentance anew each day, to put off sin, often through a long struggle for obedience and growth in holiness, the (very least) response we owe to the one who chose and called us.
Our service ended – as Advent carol services often do – with Charles Wesley’s wonderful hymn, “Lo, he comes with clouds descending, once for favoured sinners slain”. It speaks of a joyous and confident faith in the returning Jesus, the final victory – over sin, sickness, disease and death. From darkness we move towards the light. But we aren’t their yet, the King is coming back. Hallelujah.
As I sat in the service last night I prayed for our brothers and sisters worshipping in churches in Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China. The latter face intensifying persecution from a regime apparently determined to neutralise any alternative loyalties than the one to the Party/state. And those in Hong Kong – hitherto something of a bastion of freedom and openness for the gospel – must look forward in trepidation to the day, perhaps not now long delayed, when the territory will be fully incorporated into the PRC, repressive apparatus, persecution and all. How, they must wonder, will they, or their children, respond in face of persecution. Will they be willing to make hard choices for the sake of Christ? (Would any of us? We can’t know, we can only grow deeper in our faith, and prepare to choose Christ in each of – more modest, insidious – challenges our own lives bring.) Perhaps for many – in Hong Kong and China – those Advent readings, prayers and hymns, that take seriously the evil, the sin, the powers of this world – will be a source of hope and of comfort – lifting the eyes of the believers to behold their coming King and judge. Perhaps our reluctance to engage with such themes reflects a failure to grapple seriously enough with the power of sin, the insidious temptations that pull us from Christ, even amid the physical safety and relative material comfort we mostly enjoy. That should be a challenge to priests, pastors, and church leaders. I suspect the Evil One doesn’t much mind religious practice that doesn’t go deep enough to grapple with these unchanging truths.
Last night I also started rereading Fleming Rutledge’s Advent collection, published last year. I’d commend it to anyone who wants to take the season seriously. As she notes in her introduction, if we don’t preach – or hear preaching and Scripture – on the coming judge and king at Advent, when do we expect to do so. Rarely, if ever, in my experience.