Hallo again to all on this First Sunday of Advent.
Our history and tradition tells us that 'The season of Advent anticipates the coming of Christ from two different perspectives. The season offers the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, and to be alert for his Second Coming.'*
We celebrate Advent with a host of traditions. Liturgical colours, Advent wreaths, Advent candles, and Advent calendars are all part of our embrace of this ancient season. But how do we know the traditions?
If our parish began a celebration of Advent fireworks or Advent three-legged races, there's a chance (however slim) that in a hundred years those will have become firmly-ensconced traditions. How would churchgoers of the next century know that their beloved tradition of Advent three-legged races was invented as a prank in the far-off past of 2012? There would be written records, of course, but you can without much effort locate written records that support anything you choose to believe.
History is elusive. The recent debacle in the Church of England over the vote on women bishops reminds us of the quote that 'Justice delayed is justice denied.' It is of course a quote from Benjamin Disraeli, right? Or was it William Gladstone? Martin Luther King, Jr? William Penn? Or did it originate in the Magna Carta? How do we know? How can we find the truth? We perform historical research.
Once upon a time a proper study of history required vast expensive and scarce resources. Historians needed to be part of great universities because great universities had the only great libraries. Then for a while, as universities shared their libraries electronically, you could be a world-class historian at a less-notable university, your library access being largely remote. Today, anyone can be a historian, because a huge fraction of the world's historical resources are available free online. There are still holdouts, libraries that won't let their collections be put online or that won't allow public access to their collections. But in time, it will all be available online. Yes, library access delayed is library access denied, but the trend seems to be very strongly towards universal online access.
All of us at Anglicans Online come from academic backgrounds. We've been in the trenches to research this or that, traveled to access primary sources, crosschecked one report against another against another, and worked to separate fact from folklore. It might be family history (was ancestor Ernest P Steele really a Latin teacher, or was he a wood carver?). It might be church history (was John Talbot really the first bishop in North America?). It might be liturgical history (have people always sung the Gloria in excelsis after Communion and before the Benediction?). Truth about the past is elusive, and good historical research is exhaustive, methodical, and creative.
Anyone who has done deep historical research knows how often 'common knowledge' is wildly wrong. People lie. People misinterpret. People misremember and then write down the misremembrance. A sloppy modern historian will quote a sloppy historian of the past without any verification. Good stories survive; good facts are rarely good stories, so the facts get adjusted to make a better story. It's always interesting to watch what happens when new facts are entered in to old knowledge and old beliefs. The Dead Sea Scrolls. Genetic DNA testing. A stash of 47 never-before-seen letters associated with Benjamin Franklin surfacing in the British Library. Mere fact is rarely enough to change entrenched belief immediately, and there is often some spectacular creative fiction written to explain away the new facts.
To find the truth about Advent traditions — or any other churchly traditions — we'd need to deep-dive into historical research, or follow someone we trust who has already done so. But is it necessary? Is there anything wrong with celebrating a tradition that is a mere century old? Or a mere decade old? If it's important to you to follow the 'ancient traditions' and be historically accurate in your liturgy, then do your research and get it right. If it's important to you to follow the same traditions as last year or the year before, then save a copy of each year's service leaflet to be a primary source for historical research the next year.
But celebrate. Share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, and be alert for his Second Coming.
See you next week.
2 December 2012
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