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Angela Tilby: Reasons not to grumble about Advent

22 November 2019

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FOR weeks now, clergy have been grumbling about Advent. Purists think that the season should be kept austere: a season of purple and penitence, the Advent Prose on Sunday mornings, and Advent carol services that stop at the annunciation.

In an ideal world, there would be no Christmas tree in church until Christmas Eve. In contrast, populists take it as read that Advent means Christmas. We are already in the festive season — in fact, Christmas started as soon as the Hallowe’en displays were taken down in the shops. Advent, as a distinct season, is simply over, consigned to irrelevance by the demand for carol concerts and Christmas fairs.

Personally, I have always enjoyed the tension between Advent and Christmas, and find it both disorientating and refreshing. I would not want to lose the austerity and beauty of traditional Advent music, which made a deep impression on my undergraduate self. In my first year at Girton, I was taken to King’s College, Cambridge, for the Advent carol service, and I still recall the shiver up my spine at the first notes of Palestrina’s Matin Responsory coming out of the darkness: “I look from afar”. Later, I remember the same sense of disorientation each year at St Albans Abbey, in which the Advent service included an organ meditation that evoked the experience of exile.

Though Advent has always been important, I had no problems, as a parish priest, in having festive carol services in the run-up to Christmas. Mince pies and school orchestras were counterbalanced by the quiet urgency of the daily Office: “My soul is waiting for you, O Lord: in your word is my hope.” It still makes sense to me to rejoice with those who rejoice early at the Christmas story, while keeping Advent as a season of penitence and solidarity with the world’s suffering. Surely, we can do two things at the same time: meet the desire and need of our society to bring on Christmas, and wait awhile to prepare for the feast ourselves — an example, perhaps of “Family hold back”?

What is harder is to know what to do after Christmas. While the calendar would keep us rejoicing for the 12 days, and then move us into the Epiphany season, most of the clergy retire from the fray exhausted, leaving sad Christmas tat around in church as they take their post-Christmas break. Meanwhile, the world has moved on into its time of secular austerity: the New Year diet, the bills, the accounts, the tax return.

There is no solution to this clash of timings. Christmas belongs to the world as much as it does to the Church. Christians might feel awkward about this, but it is an example of how even our imperfect offerings somehow still let the light in.

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