Reclaiming Advent for Time to Come
By William H. Petersen
It’s not too early to start planning for Advent, as the lectionary shows: Scripture readings for Advent start at the beginning of November rather than at its end. Since 2005 the Advent Project Seminar in the North American Academy of Liturgy has promoted an expanded Advent season. There are two aspects of this ecumenical reclamation project. First, it recognizes that Advent was a longer season that was truncated to four weeks. Indeed, the Orthodox, always wary of Western innovations, still observe a longer season, though they do not see it as we do as the start of the liturgical year.
Second, the project reclaims the eschatological urgency at the heart of Advent. Our work envisions a seven-week Advent that begins between Nov. 5 and 12, just after the culmination of the Church year in the Feast of All Saints. The intent of an expanded Advent season is to look to the end, to the fulfillment of the implications of the Paschal Mystery set forth “for us and our salvation” (Nicene Creed) in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In other words, the focus is on the Christian hope represented by the reign of God as established in Christ as Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
The proposal for an expanded Advent is rooted in a very simple idea: to make the Advent we observe congruent with the lectionary we already have. Everything else is commentary. There is, however, a problem.
The Church long ago lost Advent to the now-global “Christmas culture.” Whether seen from inside or outside the Church, by the time our short four-week Advent season begins it appears as a late ramp-up to Christmas. So overwhelming is the surrounding and pervasive Christmas culture that, even in the Church, Advent becomes exclusively observed as a preparation for Bethlehem rather than focused principally on the full manifestation of God’s reign.
Yet even where lip service is paid to Advent’s “end time” theme, such is the Church’s complicity with the culture that this focus is frequently abandoned after Advent 1. Incredibly, last year in a parish of the Episcopal Church on the first Sunday of Advent I found the hymns pointing us to Christmas, the choir’s anthem at the offertory was Mary Had a Baby, and, if the sermon had a title, it could only have been “Advent is about getting ready for Christmas.” All this in the face of a collect, three lections, and the proper preface of the season to the contrary! In effect, the central focus of the Sunday and season was ignored, if not contradicted.
While there is scant hope of changing the culture around us, the Church need not be a fellow traveler. The call is for the Church to reclaim for the sake of its own life and mission Advent’s focus on the reign of God and, in so doing, to hone once again the counter-cultural edge of the Gospel at the very beginning of the liturgical year.
With a recovery of the eschatological urgency of Advent as its principal focus, the season is capable of being reclaimed from a totally incarnational observance to providing a “purpose” or “end” context for the entire liturgical year. A proper Advent observance that moves to an incarnational emphasis only in its last week keeps the liturgical year from being merely a repetitive cycle. An expanded Advent calls us to enter the circle of each year with deeper understandings, wider horizons, and higher expectations. We are not simply passively waiting for the end (either with a “bang” or a “whimper”), but actively called to participate as agents of God’s reign, demonstrating our eager expectation of its full manifestation.
The Work Ahead of Us
I have already noted the change in atmosphere that occurs in the lectionary near the beginning of November. But what might the practice of an expanded Advent entail? First, of course, is a renumbering of the Sundays from I to VII. Substantively, each Sunday, according to a now established principle, must be a feast of Christ, a celebration of the Paschal Mystery, whatever the season. An expanded Advent might feature, then, an unpacking of the familiar hymn Veni, Emmanuel with its messianic titles. The hymn was composed in the 18th century as a condensation of the seven “O” antiphons for the Magnificat at monastic evensong on ensuing days of the last week in Advent. In our time, we might open that compression for projection upon the larger screen of the Sundays in a seven-week Advent.
Thus, and in order, the focus would move from Christ as Wisdom (I, Sapientia), to Lord (II, Adonai), to King (III, Rex gentium, already the Feast of Christ the King), to Root of Jesse (IV, Radix Jesse), to Key of David (V, Clavis David), to Morning Star (VI, Oriens), coming appropriately at the end of Advent to “God with us” (VII, Emmanuel). In this ordering, the medieval progression is altered only to ensure that Rex gentium falls on Christ the King Sunday (a 20th-century addition to the calendar). For the lectionary, the Advent Project’s website provides a chart of all 63 readings in the three-year cycle with a précis of each reading.
Other resources will, however, be required in order to meet the liturgical observance of an expanded Advent. Part of the practical work of the Advent Project is to provide some of these on its website. Already in place is an ecumenically based musical index of familiar and unexpected hymns that mesh with the three-year lectionary cycle. A series of new collects (with the exception of Christ the King Sunday) has been composed in the light of the “O” antiphon titles of the Messiah. Two proper prefaces for an expanded Advent are proposed (and appear along with plainsong settings): the first is for weeks I-V, where the focus is exclusively eschatological, while the second is for weeks VI and VII, when the lections just begin to turn toward an incarnational focus, thus presaging the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany.
We are also addressing the natural first question for altar guilds: “What do we do with the Advent wreath?” Several solutions are possible, but all fall under the rubric of “not letting the tail wag the dog.”
Of course, there are surprises in all this. It may come as a shock that the Advent Project recommends singing “Joy to the world” (Hymnal 1982, #100) during Advent. Why? Not because (as everyone seems to think) it is a Christmas carol, but because a careful reader of the text will discern that the hymn celebrates not the child born in Bethlehem but the Lord whose kingdom is fully manifested. Again, the call is to start the liturgical year by attending to the conclusion, keeping our “eyes on the prize.” To grasp the goal firmly is one sure way not only to deepen our participation in the arc of the liturgical year but also to shape the life and mission of the Church effectively.
Taste and See
With four years’ experience, the Advent Project Seminar continues to invite congregations to participate in a trial usage for one cycle of the lectionary. Parishes of the Episcopal Church in all sections of the country, and an ecumenical array of congregations in other traditions, have already done so. This coming Advent they will be joined by parishes and congregations in both the Anglican and United Churches of Canada. Details for participation and evaluation can also be found on our website. We introduced the project to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music in 2011 and plan another presentation in this triennium.
Next to Easter, Advent has always been my favorite season as it looks to the fulfillment of the Paschal Mystery. Partly this feeling was inculcated in me as a boy chorister of a cathedral choir and by having early imbibed the glorious music of Handel’s Messiah. But I also took to heart those amazing words of Advent hope that the composer chose from Revelation: “the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever. Hallelujah!”
The Very Rev. William H. Petersen is emeritus dean and professor of ecclesiastical and ecumenical history at Bexley Hall Seminary, where he also taught liturgics. He is the founder and convener of the Advent Project Seminar.
Photo: A child lights candles on an Advent wreath in Serbia, by Stebunik (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons