I remember a time when Advent was foreign to most Protestants except for Episcopalians and a few Lutherans. Now one hears regularly of the Advent season in conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Some even bring out the wreaths, the candles, and orchestrate Hallmark moments where an entire family will be involved in a reading and lighting that Sundayâ€™s candle. The observance of Advent among the low-church Christians are usually ham fisted, of course, because technically Christmas carols should not be sung until December 25th â€“ and thatâ€™s because Jesus isnâ€™t born until then. Before Christmas, expectations of Christâ€™s advent are supposed to be properly advental, which makes â€œCome Thou Long Expected Jesusâ€ an Advent hymn, and â€œJoy To the Worldâ€ a Christmas hymn. How the liturgical calendar comes back to bite.
The objections to Advent â€“ not to mention Christmas â€“ are legion in the Reformed tradition. The regulative principle is one of those reasons.
But beyond the obvious confessional concerns are some more trivial and some more substantial. Among the trivial is the idea that Advent has become the commercial bridge between the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday and Christmas, thus baptizing a time of much consuming, both by the mouth and the wallet, with the religious patina of â€œCome, Lord Jesus, Come Quicklyâ€ (but not so fast that merchants fail to generate the seasonal profits on which their enterprises depend). Leigh Eric Schmidtâ€™s book, Consumer Rites, is among the best on the commodification of holidays in American history and he notes the following:
In a market philosophy organized on the guiding priniciple of growth, every year Christmas advertizing was said to get â€œbigger and better,â€ and seemingly the only question that remained was how early in November to begin the blitz. The Dry Good Economist candidly noted in 1902 that many retailers consider 15 November or even 1 November â€œnone too earlyâ€ to open the â€œHoliday Campaign.â€
One of the merchants that Schmidt includes was the New School Presbyterian and financial sponsor of Dwight L. Moody, John Wanamaker, of the famous Philadelphia department store that bore his name. According to Schmidt, â€œAs one of the most influential and powerful merchants of his day, Wanamaker was rarely outdone, and at Christmas he kept up a formidable flow of store souvenirs, gift catalogues, newspaper advertisements, trade cards, window decorations, musical concerts, Santa Claus stunts, and other holiday entertainments.â€ Wanamaker even had Christmas hymnals printed for use in the store, and also wrote messages appropriate to the season such as the following: â€œTo get right with Christmas would make men right with one another, nation with nation, and . . . put right this old world, almost falling to pieces.â€ Didnâ€™t the baby Jesus as a grown man turn out merchants from the Temple for making profits off religion?
A more substantive concern about creeping Adventism among Presbyterians is that because Christmas follows Advent, hard pressed are many believers not to think that the coming of the Lord upon which they are meditating in December is the Advent that took place two millennia ago — thus causing eschatological rubber-necking. Of course, we can sing Advent hymns (if we are going to sing hymns) with Christâ€™s return in view, and believers should be encouraged to live expectantly, hoping for their Lordâ€™s second coming. Mind you, this is a remarkable disincentive for commerce since living in the light of Christâ€™s imminent return leads to prayers like Calvinâ€™s â€“ â€œlet us not become too deeply attached to earthly and perishable things.â€ But if we were going to sing Advent hymns it would make more sense to sing them as far away from Christmas as possible, so that folks donâ€™t lose track of where they are in redemptive history.
We live in the inter-advental period – period. Christ has come. He is coming again. We are not awaiting his birth. Been there, done that. In which case, why donâ€™t we sing all those Advent hymns at General Assembly and Synod, a time when Christmas is a distant memory and when commissioners would do well to consider their work in the light of â€œthe fullness of timeâ€?