Who woulda thunk a controversy would break out in the Reformed Journal blog over this issue, among all the disputed questions in Calvinist circles?
Not double predestination, or prelapsarianism, or penal substitution, or even gay marriage or believer baptism – none of these, this time. The argument is over whether, and how, to distinguish the season of Advent from the imminent feast of Christmas.
It was blog editor Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell who fired the first volley on December 4, the second day of an unusually brief Advent season. His aim, he openly avows, is “to irritate the Advent purists among us.” Don’t be a snob, he urges, banishing all Christmas hymns and decorations from your sanctuary until the very hour of our Savior’s birth on December 25. (This was of course not the day on which little Jesus blew out birthday candles each year, but a date fixed four centuries later in order to displace pagan festivals honoring Saturn and Mithra, but let’s set that detail aside and take the church year as canonical.)
Go ahead and sing Christmas carols every Sunday in Advent, he suggests. Don’t turn up your nose at sappy holiday songs from pop bands and crooners or scorn your neighbor’s inflatable Santa. If you bristle at these ideas, you may be on a slippery slope toward a “squishy Christology,” whatever that means. (Inflatable Christology??)
Commenters voiced their support, or their dissent, and then Laura de Jong began her posting a few days later by saying she was taking Steve’s advice to heart.
Then instead of engaging with his broadside, she veered off into a Lent-in-Christmas reflection on the freedom with which J. S. Bach freely mingled hymn tunes and texts evoking every stage of Jesus’s earthly ministry. And that set me thinking about one of the hardest questions I face every Advent, one for which Steve’s “let a hundred flowers bloom” permissiveness is no help.
The question is: with what music shall we fill the air in our daily lives in this season of expectation? Must we limit our singing around the piano and listening to hymns and cantatas and anthems explicitly related to Advent’s time of waiting and expectation? Or may we open the door wide – this would be Steve’s advice – to every sort of music of the Nativity even while our church year insists it is several weeks away?
For that question, if not for all the other knotty questions about liturgy and lectionary and altar decorations, I can offer a thoughtful and, I venture to suggest, liturgically and musically sound answer. It is not original, I hasten to add. What I propose is an expansion and elaboration of an Advent discipline I learned from a dear friend, Carol Williamson of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. Her husband Randy was rector of our parish, Trinity Episcopal, when we resided in Swarthmore several decades ago, and we value their enduring friendship, even if our fellowship is now mostly in the realm of email and social media.
Should we sing only Advent hymns and listen only to recorded choral music that specifically invokes the season of Advent for four weeks while we await Christmas?
That is simply not practical.
There isn’t enough of it, and we would be playing the same CDs over and over, week after week. Maintain this restriction only for Advent’s first week. (Yes, I identify myself as an anachronistic music-lover, relying on my collection of CDs – and in Michigan my LPs as well – rather than streaming stations. But the same principles of selection can be applied by the devotee of Fyspot or Dorapan or whatever they are called.)
But may we then simply cast the progression of the season aside and plunge into Christmas music? So our editor would advise. But to do so is to cast aside the central lesson of this season: that our calling as followers of the Messiah is to watch and wait. We look for the coming of the Kingdom, keeping our lamps trimmed and burning. We rejoice in God’s promise of redemption even while we long for its fulfillment. The hymn proper to this season is “Come, thou long-expected Jesus,” not “So here you are already, Jesus.”
There is a way to emulate the spirit of waiting, the eagerness of expectation, in the time between the beginning and end of Advent. But let’s not wait too long.
The wealth and variety of music for the feast of Nativity is limitless, spanning every nation and every branch of the church, and we need not banish it until Boxing Day. In Advent’s last week, let us glory in all the riches of Christmas music of every kind: shapenote hymns, carols we learned in childhood, sections of Handel’s Messiah, Christmas texts as set by Britten and Vaughan-Williams, folksongs of the nativity from Odetta and Joan Baez and Bruce Cockburn.
Then what will be our musical diet in weeks two and three? There is a simple and elegant solution, bridging the familiar and the unfamiliar. My friend would set out and listen to all of her CDs containing Christmas choral and vocal music in other languages than English.
I have introduced a further distinction, drawing another threshold between weeks two and three of the Advent season. In week two, I listen to recordings of Christmas music in languages I do not understand.
In week three, I swap these CDs for performances in languages that I understand and can follow. For me that is a gate swinging wide open: now I can listen to the Bach Christmas Oratorio that Laura was preparing to sing with her choir when she wrote her reflection, and to Bach’s other cantatas for Christmas (e.g., BWV 91, Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ, and BWV 110, (Unser Mund Sei voll Lachens). Christmas hymns in Latin such as Personent hodie and Resonet in laudibus can go into rotation, along with the French carol Un flambeau, Jeanette, Isabella, the Spanish villancico Ríu Ríu Chíu and the majestic Dutch setting of the angels’ song, Ere zij God. For me, Russian liturgical anthems and Gaelic and Polish Christmas carols brighten the days of week two; for others they will belong in week three.
Does this progressive expansion of my Advent playlist mark me as an Advent snob? If so I happily accept the label. And I invite you to join me in a musical progression from expectation to fulfillment in this rich musical season, as our ears and our hearts watch and wait.