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Hallo again to all.

It is, as we write, Gaudete Sunday, III Advent. We have long since given up trying to explain to non-liturgical friends and neighbors what that means. It's enough of a struggle to explain, every year, what Advent might be; never mind trying to explain why its third Sunday is less somber and more joyous than the others. Those children who notice a pink candle being lit today and ask why it is pink usually stop listening about two or three sentences into the answer.

Gaudete in Domino semper : iterum dico gaudete. Modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus : Dominus prope est. Nihil solliciti sitis : sed in omni oratione, et obsecratione, cum gratiarum actione petitiones vestræ innotescant apud Deum. Et pax Dei, quæ exuperat omnem sensum, custodiat corda vestra, et intelligentias vestras in Christo Jesu.†

The official story of Advent is that it is a time of waiting, a time of preparation for Christmas, a time to brood about the Four Last Things as we await the birth of Christ. In the world that most of us live in, Advent is a time of trying to explain to non-churchgoing friends what Advent is. And, even more important, Advent is time that we use to remind the people around us that Christmas is a Christian celebration and not just a gift exchange. Advent is the annual focus of the competition between the sacred and the secular.

Jingle Bell RockRecently someone very dear to us, who had grown up in a church that never paid any attention to Advent, was trying to take our feelings into account and sweetly asked 'Do you mind if I play some Christmas carols on the radio?' We said 'Of course not!' When the radio was turned on, the first song was Mel Tormé's 'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire'* and the second was Brenda Lee singing 'Jingle bell rock'. A big and silent smile washed over us, and we continued our reflection on Advent as a time during which the secular world tries to understand a Christian holiday.

Interestingly enough, that works. Christ being gone is in a sense part of Advent. The Advent liturgies have for us always emphasized the absence of Christ. We cannot await Christ's arrival if he is already here. An old Roman Catholic missal text in our library says

'The readings from the Old Testament contained in the Introit, Gradual, Offertory and Communion of the Masses, taken mostly from the prophecies of Isaiah and from the Psalms, give eloquent expression to the longing of all nations for a Redeemer. We are impressed by repeated and urgent appeals to the Messiah: “Come, delay no longer."'

A brief but relevant aside here. We are very fond of the Church Times. Most Anglicans Online staff subscribe to it and have a paper copy mailed to them; the rest read it online. For those of you who don't know it or haven't seen it, the Church Times is a weekly Anglican newspaper published in London by Hymns Ancient and Modern Limited. Our copy usually arrives in Saturday's post, which gives us time to read and enjoy it. This week's issue is 40 pages, and it includes (among many other things) a centrefold reflection on the O Antiphons by the Revd Dr Fraser Watts, and an essay on the editorial page entitled 'No need to fret about carols in Advent' by the Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee, Bishop of Lincoln.

Frosty and JesusWhich is why we mentioned the Church Times. Dr Saxbee argues that we oughtn't fret about Christmas carols being played and sung during Advent. He asks 'Is Advent the build-up to the big event, or a trailer for it?' We don't want to plagiarize, but the Church Times website is offline as we write this (a domain renewal mixup) so we can't link you to their copy. We laughed out loud at his observation of a secular interpretation of liturgical symbolism:

'It is quite usual for crib scenes during Advent to depict an empty manger until the Christ-child appears on his birthday. People notice this, and generally assume that the baby has been stolen.'

Dr Saxbee ends:

'If we can think of Christmas carols in Advent as trailers for the big event yet to come, then we may not need to beat ourselves up quite so much about colluding with the commercial imperatives of contemporary culture. As with so many other compromises, when we see them as opportunities, they can be used to good effect.'

So we weren't at all distressed to hear 'Joy to the World' played at the shopping mall. We're still not entirely certain how we ought to react to 'Jingle Bell Rock', whether sung by Brenda Lee, Bobby Helms, or Bill Haley and the Comets. Somewhere in the back of our heart lurks the fear that 'Frosty the Snowman' will show up in the worship music of a certain diocese unnamed and far away, but there are so many more important worries, aren't there?.

See you next week. The main feature opens December 25!

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Last updated: 14 December 2008

Epistola B Pauli Apostoli ad Philippenses 4:4-7, from the Clementine Vulgate Project.

*Its actual title is 'The Christmas Song', but no one seems to call it that.

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