Friday, December 24, 2010

The Grinch who ruined Advent

In eight hours, it will be Christmas Day. While the gift giving and receiving no longer provide the excitement of my youth, I do very much enjoy the chance to listen to (and sometimes sing) my favorite hymns of the year. Normally on Black Friday, I load up my 471 Christmas songs on my iPod and play them through the month of December.

But this year, Baptist-turned-Episcopalian-turned-Orthodox pedant Terry Mattingly (of GR and TMatt fame) has been on a tear to ban Christmas carols before December 25. If we were in a Antiochian Orthodox theocracy (fat chance), none would be allowed on the radio, malls or churches before 12:01am tomorrow morning.

It’s been part of his nonstop campaign this month to convince reporters to adopt his typology of American holiday observance: “The Holidays” (the politically correct aversion to the "C" word) vs. “Christmas” (the fat guy in the red suit) vs. "the Nativity of our Lord” (guess which one he thinks is genuine.) He posted on this theme on Dec. 7, Dec. 14 and Dec. 23 on GetReligion, and Dec. 13 on his personal website.

On one level, I see his point. I don’t think that Christmas carols should be sung on Sunday morning in church, when we observe the season of Advent. (And, in fact, made sure this was the policy at our church.) They are two different liturgical seasons for Anglicans, the readings are different, the theology is different — and we have a great selection of historic Advent hymns to choose from.

I could certainly endorse his 2009 column in which he called for keeping the two seasons distinct: the preparation for the coming (or second coming) of our Lord is different from the celebration of it. He quoted from an essay by a Baptist preacher and seminary professor:
Advent … comes to us from a Latin term that means ‘toward the coming.’ The purpose of this season was to look toward the coming of Christ to earth; it was a season that focused on waiting. As early as the 4th century A.D., Christians fasted during this season.
However, I disagree with his current jiihad against premature Christmas revelry, on points both big and small.

The smallest point is on use of carols on Dec. 24. Yes, it’s not Christmas until 12:01am, and for years (centuries?) Christians observed a Christmas vigil to take communion after midnight. When I was newly married and in the choir, I went to the midnight mass and enjoyed it greatly. However, my new bride tried it once and concluded that she couldn't stay up that late and function the next morning.

I believe drawing from Jewish tradition, many Christian feasts are observed after sundown the night before. Most Anglican churches I know jump the gun by a few hours with a family Christmas Eve service around 4 or 5 p.m. Is it so doctrinally wrong to sing these carols two (or eight) hours early to accomodate the realities of young children and their sleep schedule.

TMatt also blasts the habit of Lessons and Carols to be performed on some Sunday in Advent, rather than during the 12 days of Christmas. What planet has he been on? I know that the December date has been the norm among Episcopalians for more then 40 years — since I sang at several such services as a choirboy. And I’d be willing to wager $100 that I could find such services during Advent in 19th century England, even during the height of the Oxford Movement.

But let’s set that aside and come to the real point: take your hands off my iPod — particularly the 228 of the 471 songs that celebrate Baby Jesus. (Or, if you prefer, “The Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” as TMatt calls it.)

The exigencies of work are such that for more than a decade, I have frequently been out business travel the week before Christmas, up until Dec. 23 or even Dec. 24. One year on Dec. 24, I attended a Sunday morning Anglican service in Yokohama and then the Christmas Eve service at home in California. Christmas music — particularly the sacred kind — is how I prepare myself for the observance of the Christmas season.

Choirs sing Christmas songs in November or even earlier to practice their parts. Why not allow amateur hymn-lovers to remind themselves of the forgotten lyrics of verses 4 and 5 so they’ll be ready for Christmas morn?

Finally, let’s not forget the big picture: the point of Christmas carols — like any other hymns or sacred music — is to communicate and reinforce the faith. In an increasingly secular world, more time spent singing Christmas carols can’t be a bad thing, particularly with the generations growing up (unlike I did) in a world when schools and malls and radio stations no longer sing about the Christ in Christmas.

I was proud to hear my youngest explain to us today: “Christmas isn’t about the presents. It’s about the birth of Jesus.” After remarking on the role of music in celebrating His birth — and how the Christmas carols are her favorite church music of the year — she concluded: “You get to sing amazing music.” I’d say that carols such as The First Noël and Hark the Herald Angels Sing are doing a pretty good job of what the composer and lyricists intended, of preserving the faith across the generations.

As it turns out, we no longer attend service on Christmas Eve: the competing family celebrations make it impractical to get away, even at 4pm. So as we have for the past four or five years, tomorrow morning at 10am we’ll be in church singing our favorite hymns, at a time authorized by Metropolitan Mattingly.

But for the rest of you, enjoy your Christmas hymns today — on the radio, in your car, and of course in church this evening.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come!


Reformation said...


9.West said...

Egads to the blogger, or egads to the Grinch of Advent?