The Blessing of Advent

The greens are hung, the first carols sung, and we are now officially in Advent. Some people take this more seriously than others. I personally won’t police the songs we’ll sing in worship over the next few weeks to keep out things properly reserved for Christmas, for example, but I do know of pastors who will do everything in their power to keep a sharp demarcation between Advent and Christmas — and that means no “Joy to the World” until the Lord is come.

On the one hand, a legalistic adherence to the church calendar helps no one. I can’t think of a single instance in which responding to “Merry Christmas!” with “No, it’s only Advent, you can’t say that yet” would be both spiritually beneficial and a decent, kind thing to do. (In fact, I can’t imagine saying that off the cuff without being a jerk.) For starters, not everyone observes the liturgical calendar. Not all sanctuaries just changed their color schemes from green to blue or purple; not everyone lit a candle in the name of hope this past Sunday. In fact, probably most Protestants failed to mark the Christian new year in any observable fashion whatsoever, despite it being a universal Christian thing across all denominational boundaries. And so to obliterate cheer, good will, and general niceties just for the sake of a slavish adherence to traditional liturgical appropriateness is a bad move all the way around.

On the other hand, we could use a lot more Advent in our current day and age. Ours is the era of instant gratification, after all. We don’t like waiting for anything; it seems to physically hurt us to not get what we want the second we want it. And that’s kind of crazy. I wish I knew what destroyed any semblance of patience we may have once had, but something tells me it’s a joint effort of many different things: parents who don’t tell their children no and instead give in to every demand; Netflix giving us things in complete bundles instead of on the “one episode a week” installment plan; television shows and movies that change scenes/angles every 3-6 seconds and keep us from having an attention span; and probably a whole bunch of other things. In the end, it’s still attributable to fallen human nature. Where patience is a fruit of the Spirit, a lack of it is best described as a sin problem.

Advent runs totally counter to that “I want it now!” impulse. It makes us slow down and wait. Yes, Christmas is coming. Yes, Christ will come again. But he wasn’t born this instant; his nativity won’t happen for a few more weeks yet. So no, you can’t open your presents right now. You can’t start decorating the tree before Halloween. You must wait. And wait. And wait. And . . .

. . . rejoice for twelve days straight. Because Christmas really is twelve days, you know. (Come on, people. There’s a song and everything!) Now you gain the object of your eager expectation. Sing all the carols you like, bake a figgy pudding, figure out wassailing. It’s Christmas!

But as the saying goes, good things come to those who wait. Christmas can only come after Advent, just as surely as the virgin birth followed the Annunciation. As we move into Advent, slow down. Wait a bit. Savor the moment. Delay your Christmastide gratification. And bask in the hope of the Advent promise: the King is coming.

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The Rite Stuff

Once upon a time, back before the days of my deep theological reflection, before I had realized a calling in low church evangelicalism, I had dinner with a Roman Catholic bishop. I had met with the diocesan vocations director and formally begun discerning the call to the priesthood. I was issued a rosary blessed by Pope Saint John Paul II specifically for the discernment process, and the bishop wanted to meet with me and all the other discerners for food, prayer, and general fellowship. A month later — and three months away from the formal ceremony to sign on the dotted line, having been fast-tracked by the diocese and offered a potential place of study in Rome itself — I “discerned out” and returned to the Protestantism which birthed me.

My friends still call me Father Peters, though.

I dropped out for several reasons (and before you ask, mandatory clerical celibacy was not one of them), but there were two main things which made me want to “go home to Rome” in the first place. The first was a study of church history and historical theology, which convinced me contemporary Protestantism gets a few things wrong. The second — and the more influential, being guided by my heart more than my head for the only time in my life — was the Roman Mass itself. I visited a Roman Catholic church with a couple of friends and immediately and irrevocably fell in love with the eucharistic liturgy. The reverence, the congregational participation, the veneration, everything about it captured my heart at once. I fully admit I’m a “smells and bells” guy when it comes to liturgical worship. Now, speaking only in Latin or celebrating ad orientem may be a bit too sacerdotal for my taste — and orthopraxy, even in worship, must follow orthodoxy — but the rites and rituals of high church worship does it for me. It fits my personality.

I’m personally wired for such things. If I may say so myself, I have a gift for rites, for the ritualistic. It’s one reason I receive so many comments about my weddings and why I’ve already been booked for the funerals of those who may very well outlive me. It’s a talent, a knack I have.

We all possess a need for those sorts of things. Even if we worship in the low church style and receive Communion via “Jesus chiclets” and “Protestant shot glasses” as we do in my own denomination, we as individuals possess a need for ritual. I think we all realize this even outside of the church. After all, what are birthday parties? Graduation ceremonies? Quinceaneras? Bar mitzvahs? They’re rites of passage, ways to mark specific moments in time or special accomplishments in ritualistic ways. For example, someone once described a birthday party in these terms: “People gather around a sacrificial food after removing it from the fire. After chanting the required song of celebration, the object of celebration prays and extinguishes the ceremonial candles. The sacrificial food is portioned out, and gifts are brought to the celebrant.” Phrased differently, that’s, “Your friends and family take your birthday cake out of the oven and bring it to you. They sing ‘Happy Birthday to You,’ and you make a wish and blow out the candles. Everybody gets a piece and give you your birthday presents.” See? Ritual. (Don’t get me started on the liturgical garb we call “academic regalia.”) This stuff is everywhere, even in the most private moments of our lives. We invent it to make it so.

And we need to. These rites and rituals are critical for our life in community. They unite us. They create shared and common experiences. They act as benchmarks and guideposts, letting us know we’re at specific points in life while guiding us toward the next one. They reinforce what is important, remind us of what our cultural values are.

Rites function the same way in the church. You may be thinking, “My church doesn’t have any of this stuff.” Au contraire. Unless you wing it each and every Lord’s Day (which I cannot recommend), you follow a set order of worship — a prescribed ritual, if you will. Even if it’s “song-communion-song-prayer-reading-preaching-two more songs,” it’s still a liturgy, still ritualistic. You have a set way of observing the Table. A protocol for baptism. Outlines for funerals. Specific elements for a proper wedding. All of these are rites or rituals. All of these are specific things used as religious ceremonies and/or carried out in a pre-determined fashion towards a specific (religious) end.

These things don’t inherently detract from the proclamation of the gospel; instead, they enable and magnify it. No matter what the “religion is bad but Jesus is good” crowd may try to say, this sort of religious observance is implicitly an act of faith (more on those guys here). Baptism is considered the Christian rite of initiation, but very, very few have ever suggested we give it up because it’s a ritual. No serious reader of the Bible could look at Matthew 28:18-20 or 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 and declare “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper must be abandoned! They’re ritualistic! They’re rites! Jesus never wanted us to do such ‘religious’ things!” I mean, he commanded them. Christ established these rites and bade us do them. What makes us think all such things are evil? How can they detract from the message of the gospel, of Christ and him crucified, when they are biblically pronounced proclamations of his death and a sharing in his resurrection? They are the gospel, enacted and visible words for all to see.

All rites and rituals should be so.

Every physical act of worship should be about Jesus, whether it’s the meet-and-greet or the benediction. Every ounce of our rituals points to the head of the church, Jesus Christ. We were created, wired to do such things. Let us do them in the name of the Creator, for the sake of the one who saved us and the Spirit who dwells within us.

In so doing, let us use these rites to teach the lost what it looks like to be saved.

F.A.Q. #4: What’s the Liturgical Year?

On the first day of Advent (two days ago, 30 November this year), I posted a simple “Happy new (liturgical) year!” on my social media profile. My seminary and ministry friends wished me the same, but other people commented or messaged me to ask, “What’s that mean?” It’s a question I hear a lot, particularly from people who attend or were raised in “non-liturgical” churches (everyone follows some sort of liturgy, though, whether they admit it or not). So today we’ll tackle the Christian calendar, seeking to answer the question “What’s the liturgical year?” or, as it may be more commonly asked, “Why do the colors in my church’s sanctuary change every so often?”

The word “liturgy” comes from two separate Greek words for “people” and “work” and literally means “the work of the people.” As we use it in church parlance, liturgy refers to the program/order of worship used in a corporate church worship service (sing a song, pass the peace, sing again, read the Scripture, hear a sermon, recite a creed, celebrate the Eucharist [or however your church does it]). The more formal or ritualized the service is, the more it has to be prayerfully programmed out, and so we say it’s more “liturgical.” The Roman Catholic Mass is a highly liturgical service, for example, with the parishioners playing a large role in the worship itself (this is also known as “high church”). Southern Baptist churches, on the other hand, while following their own liturgy of sorts, tend to be more free-flowing and sermon-oriented than the Mass and feature less congregational participation, and so we call it less liturgical (or “low church,” if you prefer).

In a broader sense, however, the Christian Church follows the Christian calendar, a.k.a. the liturgical year. Like any other calendar year, the church calendar features distinct seasons of worship. The first is Advent, a time of preparation for the coming Messiah (both in terms of Christmas and his second coming). Next comes Christmas — all twelve days of it, hence the song (which you are now humming). Christmas ends with Epiphany, celebrating the arrival of the magi (for the West) and the baptism of Christ (in the East); either way, Epiphany is a day to celebrate the manifestation of Jesus to the larger world. After Epiphany is a brief period of Ordinary Time (which is exactly as it sounds; nothing major goes on) leading up to Lent. Lent is the forty-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter, and it is observed through fasting and self-denial, preparation for the crucifixion of Jesus. Next comes Easter itself, a fifty-day observance of the resurrection of Our Lord, ending at Pentecost (literally “fifty”). From Pentecost until Advent, we return to Ordinary Time. Throughout each season, other observances occur, such as feast days of saints, Candlemas, Trinity Sunday, Holy/Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, etc.

Each distinct season is represented by its own color. Churches will change the decorations in the sanctuary, known as paraments, to the color corresponding with each season, and in churches where clergy don vestments, the color of the vestments (such as the stole, chasuble, or dalmatic) will change as well (more on vestments later). Advent is either blue or purple; Christmas and Easter are white; Lent is purple; and Ordinary Time is green. Pentecost, and feast days where observed, are red. The colors can change for other reasons as well (such as for weddings and funerals). So when the colors in the sanctuary have changed, you know you’ve entered a new liturgical season — and if you can recognize the color, you’ll know which one it is! (The liturgical year: color-coded for your convenience!)

The church year helps us cover our bases in worship, if you will. After forty days of Lent full of fasting and totally void of any “hallelujahs,” it’s much easier to both sympathize with the passion of the Christ and be more eager to truly mean it when you shout “Alleluia!” While most people in our contemporary society tend to skip Advent altogether and start singing Christmas carols, the season teaches us about expectation and hope as well as reminding us that Our Lord will return one day. Pentecost, somewhat tritely known as the birthday of the Church, nevertheless recalls to memory our origins as a worshiping community and the awesome blessings of the Holy Spirit.

The liturgical year allows us great joy, great lament, and times of ordinary Christian service. It reminds us of our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and how the Trinity interacts with us in our worship and in our daily lives. The Christian calendar provides an easy way to orient those daily lives to the Christian message, giving us easy paths to let our faith be seen in how we live each day.

Some churches still say following the liturgical year is “too Catholic,” and so they retain their forms of low church worship. To be fair, the calendar certainly wasn’t in existence in apostolic times, although they celebrated Easter and other observances. But to me, the church year is a great way to be in fellowship with the larger global church, and its value when followed in corporate worship and discipleship shouldn’t be underestimated.

And so, two days later, I’ll say it again: happy new year!