On Rushing Ahead in the Story
A few years ago, when I was taking my first steps in my present role as pastor, a church member timidly approached me sometime around mid-December with a question: “I know it’s Advent, and Advent is about waiting, but would you be OK if we sang some Christmas carols during the Sundays before December 25?” The question was probably more pragmatic than theological. Our church doesn’t have a Christmas day service, and the Sunday between Christmas and New Years is usually among the most lightly attended of the year. There simply weren’t as many opportunities to sing these dearly loved songs as some people would like!
Over at the Mennonite World Review’s blog, Amanda Beachy has penned a great piece today on the theme of waiting during Advent—about refusing to rush too quickly to singing Christmas carols. As I read her article, I was inwardly saying, “yes, yes, yes!” Advent is about patiently sitting with our doubts and fears in the darkness of winter, it is about longing and hope, it is perhaps even about a bit of disorientation and perplexity as we strain and stretch toward God’s strange and glorious coming. It is important not to stampede through seasons like Advent and Lent that train us in the art of waiting, that teach us to wrestle with pain, restlessness, and frustrated desire. We need to wait. We need to be careful about rushing too quickly to the fulfillment of the story.
And yet… Part of me wants to say, “no, no, no!” as well. Part of me wants to say, “enough of all this waiting already! Jesus has come and we ought to shamelessly sing this goodness, light, and hope into every dark corner of our world and our lives! Who cares about “liturgical seasons? I’m a terrible waiter, and I’m skeptical about how much good it is really doing me anyway!” Part of me—a big part of me, if I’m honest—is just sick of waiting.
So, I feel myself being pulled in both directions on this Christmas Eve that bridges the waiting and the fulfillment. I want to honour the waiting, the frustration, the longing, the doubt. I think there has to be space for these things in the worship of the church. I want to spend time in the wilderness, painful though it may be. I am no proponent of determinedly cheerful, hyper-victorious faith and worship that refuses to acknowledge the dissonance that is a part of human experience. We need to learn to wait well. I need to learn to wait well.
But on the other hand, I think there ought be an uncontainable exuberance to the church’s worship as well, an “I can’t wait to get to the punch line,” an “I’m going to shamelessly belt out these songs in the wrong order at the wrong time. Because a child has been born—can you believe it?! Because the hopes and fears of all the years have been fulfilled in this little boy who will save us from our sins and we simply must sing about it!”
I think the church’s worship ought to burst free from our proud, precise, theologically sophisticated liturgical containers from time to time. Because we know that, while waiting is part of our story, part of how we are shaped as God’s people, we are also people of a hope that has been fulfilled, followers of a God who has already come and continues to come.
Perhaps when it comes right down to it, I simply feel that our world is already well enough acquainted with darkness. I’m already well enough acquainted with darkness. And so I’m ok if we sneak a little illegitimate goodness, light, and hope in at the wrong point in the story. I’m ok with a little joy to the world before the joy actually comes. I have no problem with “O Holy Night” and “in his name all oppression shall cease” even while the world still staggers and groans under the weight of too many sin-soaked unholy nights. I’m fine with all being calm and bright even when things are supposed to be (and all-too-frequently are!) chaotic and dark and uncertain. I don’t apologize for stealthily sidling up to the manger when I’m supposed to be wandering out in the wilderness. I am greedy for the hope and the light of Christmas, and I don’t care if this “fits” with the seasons or not.
Over the past two Sundays at our church, those who wish to do so have been gathering about ten minutes earlier than usual to sing Christmas carols during Advent. It’s probably out of order and theologically suspect, but I, quite frankly, love it. I love listening to Christmas carols as I feverishly print off my sermon or pray with the worship leader or make last-minute preparations for the service. I love hearing these proleptic bursts of joy and fulfillment during Advent. I like to think of us like the lepers racing off without saying thank you, or Jesus’ mother ignoring his protests about his time not having come and rushing ahead to the best wine at the wedding, or the many other people in the gospels who routinely ignored Jesus’ pleas to keep his identity a secret because they just couldn’t keep the news of healing, liberation, and hope bottled up. We’ve never been very good at respecting the “right timing” when joy and hope make a gloriously unexpected appearance in the story. I see no reason to start now.
So, joy to the world! During Advent, Christmas, Lent, Pentecost, or even Ordinary Time. Joy to the world, whenever, wherever, however.
Let earth receive her king.
This is wonderful! If you think Mennonites get hung up on liturgical correctness, try being Anglican. One December many years ago an Anglican priest I know decorated the exterior of his house entirely with purple lights, and then late on Christmas Eve went out in the bitter cold of a Winnipeg winter night, unscrewed all the purple bulbs, and replaced them with white ones! I agree that such a degree of rigidity is kind of missing the point.
Wow. That’s commitment to the calendar :). I agree, kinda missing the point…
Thank you for your kind words—and Merry Christmas to you.
Hey. Amanda Beachy here (whose piece you referenced), and I’d just like to say that I wholeheartedly agree with all that you’ve written here! Though I wrote that I suggest we sing advent songs during our worship services, I do love the time before the service when we too sing Christmas carols for 15 minutes. This year we also hosted a Christmas hymn sing on the first Sunday of advent and we always, always go caroling in mid-December. I identify with that tension between waiting and celebrating–such is the life of a Christian! Thanks for a great and thoughtful piece.
Great to hear from you Amanda. It’s cool to know that others do the carols before Advent worship. Thanks again for your very good article.
Merry Christmas to you and yours!
Merry Christmas everyone:
As a child I practised Christmas carols at school and at church from the beginning of November until Christmas. These carols became our Advent songs and they still to this day represent songs of anticipation. The songs they list as Advent songs are foreign to me and I have great difficulty in trying to unlearn that, I’m guessing I never really will.
Thanks for sharing this, Ernie.