Monday, November 03, 2008

Caroling During Advent

When it comes to Advent, I've been a bit of a purist.

Much to the chagrin of the entire congregation, I've always saved our Christmas carols until Christmas Eve and the Sunday or two after. In the meantime, I have chosen a couple lesser-known carols for Advent, and a lot of Advent hymns (as I've mentioned, the old E&R hymnal has a great selection). Of course, I've heard the occasional question as to why we don't sing the more familiar songs during the entire month of December.

I've always regarded that question as a good teaching moment. Advent is Not Yet. Jesus hasn't been born yet during this season. Instead, we anticipate Christmas. So it doesn't make much sense to sing all the songs mentioning Jesus in the manger when Jesus isn't in the manger yet.

The main counter-argument that I've heard is that Christ is always with us, so why keep him out of the manger? As such, some pastors I know don't see any problem with peppering Advent with a few carols.

That, and this is the only time of year people get to, even expect to, sing them.

Well, I've been able to justify some peppering of my own. In the past, the very last hymn that we've sung on the Fourth Sunday of Advent has always been "O Come All Ye Faithful." My reasoning is that this carol serves as the invitation to Christmas Eve worship: "O come all ye faithful to our celebration of Christ's birth." If I'm being totally honest, it's also a gesture to those who wish for more carols.

When I first conceived this entry, I was going to write about how the last hymn will be a carol every Sunday. I was going to write about how the other two will still be Advent hymns, and that every Sunday of the season would be a mini-fulfillment of Christ's birth, a service of anticipation that ends in a small celebration of what we inevitably celebrate in more grand fashion on December 24th and 25th.  It was going to be this clever theological justification for singing more carols while maintaining integrity.  Here's even how I had it worked out:

First Sunday - "As With Gladness, Men of Old" - no real overt mention of Christ being born, but instead a recalling of that first Christmas and a call to us to observe Christ's presence with us.

Second Sunday - "Go, Tell It on the Mountains" - this is on the Sunday of a John the Baptist text, who proclaimed in the wilderness, so here's an invitation to proclaim from the mountains.

Third Sunday - "Angels We Have Heard on High" - the most overt while we're still way back on December 14th, but the language is still more of an invitation to come and see.

Fourth Sunday - "O Come All Ye Faithful" - The same reasoning that I've always used.

Then I thought about how this is me dealing with my own "But we've always done it this way."  I admit to being a bit of a fuddy-duddy when it comes to this issue.  But I'm feeling less and less inclined to be so.

For me as much as anyone else, Christmas is a special time when we can sing and hear the carols of the season; experience the sense of hope, peace, joy, and love that we're meant to reflect on during Advent.  Those carols help evoke that sense...they're such a big part of it, actually, that perhaps I've been cheating everyone, including myself, out of experiencing it.

So I'm probably using a few more in addition to the four mentioned above.  I still want everything to have some methodology to it based on the day's theme rather than arbitrarily plugging a few in every week.  Still, this will not be the season to be uptight and rigid.

But hey, let's get through Thanksgiving first.


Anonymous said...

Youth fellowship hayride last night - passed a house with a lighted plastic snowman on the front porch - everyone groaned.

LutherPunk said...

I'm with you: save it till Christmas! The First Sunday after Christmas we do lessons and carols so folks can sing Christmas carols till their hearts are content.

Unknown said...

I have been a purist, but I am coming to realize that the kids in the congregations I have served rarely get to sing the carols. The families take the Sunday after Christmas "off." They may be away for Christmas Eve visiting grandparents, or are at home getting to bed early, or at a family party or whatever else. At school they are learning (rightly) only secular songs nowadays, and in the public square they will not hear the classics of our tradition.
I guess I am saying I have a changed heart about this.

Jeff Nelson said...

I'd thought about that point too, Songbird. All in all, it may be my biggest reason to rethink this.

Gene said...

People can listen to Jim Nabors sing all of the hymns as much as they want on youtube.

Anonymous said...

I will sneak the carols in toward the end of Advent ... maybe "Midnight Clear" on the third Sunday and a couple of others on the fourth Sunday. What I choose depends on what we end up doing on Christmas Eve in order to use as many of the carols as possible. The first two Sundays, though, are definitely Advent song Sundays.

The last couple of years, I have used the "Gloria" from "Angels We Have Heard" as a congregational response after the Assurance of God's Forgiveness during all four Sundays of Advent. It's a wink and a nod toward the issue that Coffeepastor raises.


Gene said...

So do the churches that elect not to sing Christmas Carols not have nativity scenes on display before Christmas eve/Christmas? Usually churches put those out in early December, although I have a hard time with the idea that Jesus' parents hung out in the manger for a few weeks.

Anonymous said...

Nativity scenes are okay - but there isn't a Jesus in the manger until Christmas and no wise men until Epiphany.

Gene said...

Why is a nativity scene with Mary and Joseph and all of the animals okay, but singing a song about the birth of Jesus is not? I always found the fuzzy logic of Advent maddening.

EnnisP said...

Wow, I have been in Christian circles for years but have never heard arguments for or against traditional Christmas hymns before Christmas Eve. I say this kindly, but I feel like I have just uncovered a hidden corner of the kindgom.

Jeff Nelson said...

The logic is fuzzy, Gene, and I've been reevaluating it the past few weeks. The latest light bulb for me came yesterday, when I decided that carols during Advent can be very appropriate during a season of preparation for the way they get people in the spirit.

So I'm much less of a purist. Or I'm still a purist, but in a different way. Or whatever.

Anyway, we're singing a half dozen or so carols during Advent now.

Ennisp, welcome. It doesn't seem to be a widely-held debate...only among the nerdiest of church nerds.;)

EnnisP said...

But, I forgot to say, I do identify with the coffee and I like philosophical thinking (even though I get lost in it sometimes)!! I couldn't help but click on a link that had both in one title.

blahedo said...

Just ran across this post; I've become a bit of a hardliner on the "no carols in Advent" thing over the last few years, in part because I've been to too many parishes that make no (or little) discernible distinction amongst the Seasons, and when I'm programming the songs I try very hard to recover that.

It also fits nicely with a planning constraint peculiar to me: I'm the choir leader and we have no accompanist, so I need to plan easier songs for when I'm not here, and I'm home with family for Christmas and the days after. Nothing easier than Christmas carols! Since we haven't been doing Christmas carols all month, I can plan all carols all the time for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Holy Family, secure in the knowledge that the whole congregation knows everything. ;)

Besides, there are some nice Advent songs out there. I never used to like "O come O come", but when we lost our accompanist I discovered that was because I just didn't like it metrical and accompanied---it works much better in its original chant form, and we sing it for processional every week of Advent, in a rotating cycle (1,2/3,4/5,6/7,1). "Creator of the stars of night" is another classic. "The King shall come when morning dawns" is really a Second Coming song, but vss 1, 4, 5 make a great recessional on the fourth week of Advent. I've just discovered "The angel Gabriel from Heaven came", an old Basque carol, and I *love* it; there are also any number of Magnificat settings that work well (I'm partial to Charles Romer's "My soul magnifies the Lord").

And when else do you get to sing this much minor-key music? ;)

David Clark said...

Thanks for your thoughtful article on this. I've gone from being a newly ordained pastor who refused to allow carols in Advent to one who delights in belting them out in worship during Advent. Here's a brief post about that journey.