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It’s Advent. Do you know where your priorities are?

Is this season a time for preparation — or merely “Christmas lite”?

The Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer (ELCA), Minneapolis, displays this iconic art piece during the Advent Season. The artist, Joe Larson, is a member there. Photo: Todd Asher, Asher Photography Studios

Advent (a word that means “traveling toward”) may be the most misunderstood season on the Christian church calendar. Small wonder. It hasn’t always been observed as it is today, and many Lutherans seem to have a love-hate relationship with it.
Why is that?
For one thing, some think Advent is too long — and too intrusive. The Advent season runs for a month. (This year it begins on November 28.) The Christmas season runs for 12 days. Lutheran hymnals have a respectable number of Advent hymns but a cornucopia of Christmas music. The annual battle over when to start singing Christmas carols is as predictable as snow in December in the Twin Cities. Some Christians would much prefer to replace Advent with “pre-Christmas” and forget about a time of preparation.
And then there’s the mixed messages embedded in Advent. Is it a sad season or a happy one? The Scripture themes appointed for Advent tend to turn faithful worshipers into schizophrenics. Early in the season, the Gospel readings sound an alarm bell. (Jesus is coming soon and it may not be a pretty sight.) By the end of the season, things have turned placid. (It’s Christmas Eve. “All is calm, all is bright.”)
Stir into this mix the commercial pressures. American culture dictates that everyone enter into a spending frenzy during December, buying stuff our loved ones may or may not need or want, at prices we may or may not be able to afford (especially in a down economy) for a gift-giving orgy on Christmas Eve or Day.
The logical time during which to compete in this annual rat race? Advent.
Lutherans in Germany have put Sunday off-limits for shoppers — during Advent and the rest of the year as well. (Their Roman Catholic counterparts support them in this.) But this year merchants in notoriously secular Berlin are pushing back, trying to open up the four Sundays of Advent for pre-Christmas shopping. Surprisingly, rarely-at-worship Berliners are agreeing with church leaders. Sunday may be good for long walks and relaxation (if not worship), but the stores should stay closed, they believe — including during Advent.
Julie Gregson, a reporter for Deutsche Welle, the German national news agency, quotes Heike Krohn, a spokeswoman for the Lutheran Church in Berlin and Brandenburg. Says Krohn, “In Berlin, the whole Advent period was being completely commercialized. This was impinging on our religious freedom. Services do not just take place in the morning. There are also church activities in the afternoon.”
(Imagine a Lutheran church leader in Minnesota telling the managers at Ridgedale or the Mall of America to close up on Sundays during Advent!)

The tradition of Advent

So, what is Advent supposed to mean for Lutherans — and how is it supposed to work? Curiously, this season-come-lately (evidence suggests Advent was the last season to be added to the church calendar) has not always been four Sundays long. Frank Senn, author of the magisterial Fortress Press reference work Christian Liturgy, explains: “[Advent originally] lasted from the feast of Saint Martin of Tours (November 11) until Christmas. This period, comprising 42 days, produced a six-week period of Sundays.” Early on, it was called “St. Martin’s Lent,” because it was, for the most part, a penitential season.
It is not clear when the season was shortened, but some Christians may think even four weeks is too long for Advent. One churchman famously suggested, “Let’s just face reality. People want to celebrate Christmas in December. We’ve got the music for it. Our college choirs have ‘Christmas concerts’ in early December. Who are we fooling?” (It should be noted that Augsburg College, unlike her sister schools, stages an annual “Advent Vespers,” not a Christmas concert. But even in Augsburg’s case, much of the repertoire consists of Christmas carols and anthems.)
Battling the tide of “early Christmas” all through December, many, if not most, Lutheran congregations still fight the good fight, attempting to mark Advent as a season of preparation for the coming of Jesus at month’s end. Two Twin Cities congregations responded to a Metro Lutheran invitation to share their Advent stories. Both are instructive.

Local congregations celebrate the season

At Bethlehem Lutheran in Minnetonka, an LCMS congregation, Pastor David Buuck leads Advent Vesper worship services. These are held on Wednesday evenings. The pastor explains: “At least two kinds of seasonal devotional booklets are made available for members and friends to use at home. Throughout the season we have two special holiday trees — one, the Giving Tree, for gifts purchased for area children and seniors in need; the other, our Bethlehem tree, decorated with Christmas ornaments.”

Art: Ann Richmond

Bethlehem also builds a spirit of anticipation with successive banners, displayed sequentially all season long. They mirror the Scripture themes for the four Sundays and read “Watch,” “Prepare,” “Rejoice,” “Behold!”
Across town, University Lutheran Church of Hope begins its seasonal observance on the Sunday following Thanksgiving Day. Diane Shallue is an Associate in Ministry staff member at this ELCA congregation. She says this year each family will be encouraged to make a Jesse Tree.
Shallue explains: “The idea of the Jesse Tree comes from the classic Advent passage in the Old Testament prophetic book of Isaiah. ‘A root will sprout from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a branch will bear fruit.’ The traditional symbols hung on the tree are based on the genealogy of Jesus.”
Metro Lutheran invited leaders of international Lutheran churches to share some of their Advent priorities. One response was forthcoming, from a pastor serving in the Lutheran Church of Sweden.
The Rev. Torbjorn Axelson serves a congregation in a small Swedish community. He says the much-anticipated December 13 St. Lucia celebration continues to be a mid-Advent highlight. “According to tradition, this was the darkest day of the year. It is one of the few occasions when the church is really filled with people. I take the occasion to talk about the original Lucia, who confessed Christ, the true light of her life.”
This light is symbolized by four burning candles, worn in a young woman’s hair. That blazing ring mirrors the custom of lighting four candles on Advent wreaths in many Christian congregations around the world.
When Axelson’s email response arrived, later than he had planned, he attached a comment which, whether he intended it or not, captured the theme of Advent as well as anything in his message. He wrote, “In Swedish there is a proverb that says, ‘Who is waiting for something good, will never wait too long.’”
Whatever else might be said about this upside-down season (the first Sunday focuses on Jesus’ second coming, while the final one focuses on his first), it’s just counter-cultural enough to capture and hold our attention. Americans tend to be in a hurry. This season says, “Slow down. Wait. Anticipate.”
Perhaps we should all put those four words on poster paper and leave them fastened to our refrigerators — at least until December 24.

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