Understanding the Liturgy of the Christmas Season

Understanding the Liturgy of the Christmas Season

Every year when December 25 looms ahead I gradually become more and more reflective on the true meaning of the season. With each passing year I become slightly more enraged by the creep of Christmas decorations, songs, and other signs of the season that come earlier and earlier. Now, I want to be clear on this point. I am no Scrooge. I celebrate and enjoy the Christmas season as much if not more than most people. What I loathe is the lack of attention given to the central meaning of Christmas (even among Christians) and the disregard and ignorance that surround the seasons that exist on either side of Christmas.

Interestingly, both of these shortcomings are well addressed by the use of the seasons of Advent and Christmastide. Despite their values, they continue to fall out of favor with Christians as fewer and fewer churches observe them and make use of them. It is to be admitted that there is no biblical command to observe these seasons. However, there is no such command to observe Christmas either. If we are to observe the season, let us at least recognize it for what it is.

 

Advent

Let’s begin with Advent. Advent comes from the Latin word adventus which means “arrival.” It represents the anticipation of the coming of Messiah. In the original usage by Christians, it was a period including the four Sundays preceding Christmas. These four weeks were designed to be a time of fasting and abstinence during which Christians abased themselves. This period of time has served many purposes. It has been used to remember God’s covenant promises of the Old Testament that were fulfilled in Christ, to remember the time during which God’s covenant people awaited the coming of Messiah, to remember the condition of our lives before Christ broke into them, and to anticipate Christ’s second coming. In fact, our celebration of Christmas has more to do with Christ’s second coming than His first.

One of the symbols of the humility of the season of Advent is the choice of color for the season. Purple was chosen as the color of humility. It’s also the color for Lent. The third Sunday in Advent is the only day in season that is assigned a different color. This is the only day in the season that is represented by the color pink. Pink is the color of joy in traditional liturgy. There is only one other day on the calendar that has this color and it is Gaudete (“Rejoice” in Latin) Sunday during Lent.

These colors have led to the formation of the familiar Advent wreath with three purple candles and one pink candle. Throughout the years these candles have come to represent different aspects of the waiting of Advent. The first Sunday of Advent (purple) has come to signify hope. The second Sunday of Advent (also purple) represents peace. The Third (the lone pink candle) is the Sunday of joy. The Fourth (purple again) is the Sunday of love.

So what it is the value of Advent? If done correctly, it allows for meditation on the reality of Christ’s coming. It allows us to ease into the season. We remember what is important about the season. Most importantly, occupying your thoughts with the thoughts of Christ’s first coming and Christ’s second coming can help decrease your thoughts on the distractions of commercialism. That leads us to second season – Christmastide.

 

Christmastide

For most Christians today, Christmas is a single day. For most of Christian history, Christmas was a period of celebration from December 25 to January 6. While the focus of Advent is humility and self-abasement, the focus of Christmastide is celebration. This period of twelve days (i.e. The Twelve Days of Christmas) is a time to celebrate the coming of Christ into the world. In short, Advent remembers the anticipation of Christ’s coming and Christmastide celebrates His actual arrival. It is a celebration of the reality of Christ’s presence in our lives.

From the purpose of theological meditation, Christmastide is the time to reflect on one of the most profound and fundamental doctrines of the faith – the Incarnation. Here the whole fullness of God was united to all the fullness of human frailty. How glorious! God’s immortality united to human mortality. The Eternal experienced the passing of time. The Omnipresent stepped into to space. The Independent and Almighty knew helplessness. The glory of the mystery is such that we could go on and on. This is the key of understanding the Christmas season – God became man to redeem the elect. It’s not the number of wise men, the innkeeper turning away Mary and Joseph, or how cold it was on the night. (Incidentally, none of these are actually in the Bible as stated.) It is Christ that we celebrate.

The liturgical color for Christmastide is white. This is chosen as the color for days that focus on the person and glory of Christ. It is also the color for the Feast of the Resurrection (a.k.a. Easter, Resurrection Sunday, etc.). For this reason, Advent wreaths have a single white candle in the middle that is commonly called the Christ candle. It represents the coming of Christ into the world.

The chief value of Christmastide is the ability to extend the time for reflection and meditation. Too often, Christmas can become a single day of mindless stress and commercialism. By focusing on the truths of the period, you can extend the joy without extending the stress. In Christmastide, the celebration of Christ’s coming continues until January 6. This day is known as the Feast of the Epiphany. It commemorates the coming of the Magi to the Lord. By extending the celebration into a twelve day celebration, it extends the opportunity for rejoicing in the coming of Christ and the mystery of the Incarnation.

 

Advice for Private and Public Worship

This post may come a little late for the Advent season of 2018. However, I wanted to give some advice for individuals, families, and churches for improving the worship of the season.

 

Scripture Reading

As with any time of the year, Scripture reading is key for worship. For private or family readings, find an Advent devotional. Churches should plan them well in advance. The main focus should be on the Old Testament prophecies regarding the coming of Christ and the parts of the Nativity narratives before the birth of Christ in Matthew and Luke. Advent wreaths in the church and home are both excellent ways to focus the attention of the worshippers on the reading of Scripture. For Christmastide, continue the reading by reading the Nativity accounts of both Luke and Matthew. I also recommend making use of a few passages like John 1, Philippians 2, and Titus 2 to reflect on the Incarnation.

 

Prayer

Prayer is often neglected in the Christmas seasons. Accompany the Scripture reading with prayer. Let the prayers for Advent be meditative. They should be a time for confessing sin and the need for Christ. They also are times to give thanks for Christ’s presence in our lives today. The can also include prayers for the hastening of the coming of the Kingdom. Christmastide, on the other hand, should be a time for praising God for the wonder of the Incarnation and praying for the heralding of the Kingdom by the preaching of the Gospel.

 

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

There are churches that refuse to sing Christmas hymns during Advent, and that is perfectly fine. I am not that rigid, however. Most of the hymns that are associated with Christmas include elements that meditate on Advent as well, so the distinction is difficult. Instead, I would focus on singing hymns that are theologically sound. Most traditional Christmas hymns are actually pretty good in this category. I personally take issue with the second verse of “Away in a Manger.” The verse seems to both reject the full humanity of Christ (“but little Lord Jesus no crying He makes”) and the full divinity of Christ (“look down from the sky and stay by my cradle till morning is nigh”) by denying His omnipresence. This may be my own personal nitpickiness, though.

 

I hope that this post helps you to more thoroughly celebrate the season. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

 

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