11.29.2020 – Advent: Not Yet the Bleak Midwinter

The first Sunday of Advent.

I have been thinking about Advent. Our pastor here in Auburn graciously asked if I might be willing to create the readings for the lighting of the Advent candles on the four Sundays of Advent and Christmas Eve.  It was a generous offer, and I gladly accepted.

I’ve also been talking with a friend whose background is in a non-liturgical church, but who has a new position this year and must lead his church, like Saint Andrew, an otherwise low church, through an observance of Advent.

Traditionally, Advent is the season that begins with the fourth Sunday before Christmas and continues through Christmas Eve.  The old readings and prayers have a double focus on Christ’s first Advent at his nativity in Bethlehem and on his second Advent at the end of time, coming as judge of the living and the dead and bringing with him a new heaven and a new earth.

The lighting of a candle each Lord’s Day in Advent and then, finally, on Christmas Eve is only traditional; the purple, pink, and white candles also only traditional. Likewise traditional, the name assigned each candle: Hope, Faith, Joy, Peace, Christ. The traditions are helpful, however, in our much distracted and distracting world. We light candles to remind us of light coming to a dark world.

So I wrote five short liturgies, one for the lighting of each of the Advent candles.  I did not change the purple, purple, pink, purple, white or the Hope, Faith, Joy, Peace, Christ order of things. I am a traditionalist.

Pastor Adam suggested that we stick with some of the themes of our Living as a Christian in a Deeply Divided world Sunday School class. They are 2020 liturgies, after all, never to be used again. When I had finished writing, I read what I had wrote, I was stuck by how gloomy it all is. Maybe that’s the point.

Each of the next four Sundays and then on Christmas Eve, we will light a new candle. The light will grow brighter Advent worship by Advent worship. The readings are not about Christmas, Jesus, Santa, or otherwise. They are about finding hope, living faith, experiencing joy, sharing peace. They are about Christ who came and will come again. They are about 2020, and have a gloomy feel to them. How could they not have a gloomy feel to them and still be about 2020?

The Prophet Isaiah dreamed of the coming Messiah long before he came. He described that coming, that advent, as light shining on a people who lived in a land of deep darkness. He saw a people covered with thick darkness and in great need of comfort. Luke tells us Augustus was emperor and Quirinius governor when Jesus was born. The Roman occupation was heavy on God’s people.

We are not the first people to live in a gloomy time.

The traditional Advent hymns are the like of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” I like them very much. But during Advent 2020 I will listen to Christina Rossetti’s haunting “In the Bleak Mid-Winter.”

Winter will have hardly begun when Advent ends, but the hymn about the bleak mid-winter seems written for our time and not so long ago:
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Ours is the world to which he came and to which he will come again:
Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign.

Purple, purple, pink, purple, white. Hope, Faith, Joy, Peace. Christ. Advent comes at exactly the right time.

Take a moment to listen to this recording of Corrine May singing “In the Bleak Midwinter.” it is my favorite.  It is was recorded in a coffee shop in Los Angeles several years ago.