First Week of Advent: Greens

Near the beginning of Advent, my hometown church always had a Hanging of the Greens service. This was a special service during which the decoration of the sanctuary for the season would be woven into the liturgy, with each piece of garland and every strand of holly and ivy accompanied by a reading explaining what they symbolized, followed by a few verses of a song as it was hung somewhere around the room.

I generally remember it as a meaningful time; a fine introduction to this special time of year that I in my junior high through college years could appreciate.

The church in which I served my third year of seminary had this type of a service as well. What I remember most from this was not the songs or the scriptures or the descriptions, but the organization and the stress.

This was a larger church in an affluent suburb of St. Louis, where things happened on time and with great efficiency. In the lead in to this service, people needed to be assigned decorations to be paraded in and readings to give. They needed to be lined up in just the right way outside the sanctuary alongside a series of rectangular tables with every wreath numbered and labeled. And they needed to walk in at just the right time, go to just the right place, and hang them in just the right way.

This service was a great source of anxiety for the ministry staff. Whether they put it on themselves or whether members of the congregation impressed it upon them, there was an expectation that Hanging of the Greens needed to be The Perfect Beginning of the holidays. Things running smoothly during this service would bring tidings of comfort and joy to those who attended, which is what some not only expect but even demand from this time of year.

Since beginning in full-time ministry myself, I consider myself fortunate to have not yet experienced the organization of such a service. The two churches I have pastored have foregone the decoration of the church being a formal part of their worship life in favor of volunteers showing up the day before in sweatshirts and jeans to pull down boxes from far up places and hang things at a leisurely, less demanding pace. There are sometimes arguments about how best to space the ornaments on the tree and there's sometimes some confusion as to where certain things go, but we can figure that out without the eyes of the congregation upon us and without even our own inner voices willing us to feel  happy or reverent as we fumble to arrange the nativity set on the altar just so.

People come to this season with a lot of different expectations. We may expect to adhere to certain traditions or sing certain songs or feel certain feelings. These activities are what help make this time what it is for us. And depending on how high those expectations are, our holiday experience is always under threat of ruination if things don't happen in just the right way.

I admit that I have some of those expectations for myself, although they've been tempered by various things over the years, enough that I can hold them loosely enough while adhering more closely to hope. I can hope in the underlying spirit of carols and get-togethers and silly movies and Linus's speech and the looks on my children's faces as our own decorations go up without fanfare.

I can hope that this season will bring comfort and joy, less from having things go precisely the way I want, and more in the midst of--and sometimes despite--the imperfection of what actually happens.

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