Against the Advent Purists

Like last year, our Episcopal Church is Christmas caroling on December 31st. I don't care if it is liturgically better than before Christmas. It's dumb and embarrassing. None of the random houses we go to will understand why we are showing up a week after Christmas.

This statement on Twitter caught my attention last weekend, as the parish in which I serve was preparing for a joyful Nine Lessons and Carols on Sunday morning (the Fourth Sunday in Advent) with no sense at all that this supposedly disturbed Advent or was an apparently unfortunate compromise with secular culture. Now, to be clear, we should, of course, be still singing carols on 31st December.  That is not the problem.  The problem is banishing carols from Advent, exalting a purist approach to a liturgical season over the proper and wholesome desire to anticipate the joy of Christmas.

Historical evidence in terms of Anglican preaching and piety does suggest a significant and enduring awareness that Advent cannot be a 'Christmas-free zone'. Cosin's Advent Embertide prayer, for example, quite clearly recognises the season as oriented towards the celebration of Christmas: "that by the celebration of the advent and birth of our blessed Redeemer, we may with them be filled with true joy and consolation". Cosin would also say in his Notes on the Prayer Book, "Therefore beginning at Advent is the memory of His incarnation celebrated".

Over centuries, Anglican Advent sermons have related Advent to the celebration of Christmas. A 1666 sermon rejoiced that "Advent is the Harbinger to make way for the Queen-feast". The Laudian Mark Frank saw in the Epistle of Advent IV - Philippians 4:4-7, "Rejoice ... The Lord is at hand" - an anticipation of Christmas:

the Lord may be said to be at hand too, because the Feast of his coming, that coming which gave rise to all the rest, the original of all the rest of his gracious comings is at hand to us.

Consider also, in the early 19th century, an Advent sermon by Joseph Holden Pott of the Hackney Phalanx:

The present season of the year, when we are invited to look forward to the days which are appointed for commemorating the first advent of our Lord.

In the same era, John Henry Hobart rejoiced that "this holy season" looked towards both "the festival of the nativity ... [and] the glory and power of his second advent to judge the world".

In other words, the approach of the Advent purists - banishing Christmas from the Sundays of Advent - is a rejection of the wisdom and prudence of the Anglican tradition over centuries. The joy of Christmas is to be quite naturally experienced and anticipated as the Sundays of Advent draw to a close. Yes, Christmas carols are not appropriate on Advent Sunday.  They are, however, entirely appropriate as Advent advances. To banish the joy of carols as Christmas approaches - the celebration of the Lord's advent - is an expression of an unhealthy, unbalanced asceticism which the Anglican tradition has, in very many ways and contexts, wisely rejected. Joy at the approach of Christmas is, to use a word very significant in Hooker's reflections on liturgy, natural.

This is also a hint of this in the Gospel readings appointed in 1662 for the latter Sundays of Advent. The very clear eschatological themes of the First and Second Sundays give way to Gospel readings on the Third and Fourth Sundays in Advent which have a focus on John the Baptist and the Incarnation. The Lord's answer to the disciples of John, "Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see" (Advent III), and the words of John, "there standeth one among you, whom ye know not" (Advent IV), orient us towards the Christmas Gospel: "In him was life ... his own received him not". A turning towards the celebration of the Lord's Nativity, far from being a rejection of Advent, seems to be suggested by the progress of the traditional Gospel readings appointed for the Sundays of the season.

This should not be interpreted as a desire to minimise preaching which proclaims with seriousness the Church's eschatological hope. In fact, the opposite is the case.  The contemporary Church does need such preaching.  Requiring the four Sundays of Advent to bear this weight, however, is entirely unrealistic, not least when the high feast of Christmas quite naturally preoccupies us as it approaches. A more durable and convincing approach to eschatological preaching is to identify how it should be built into the wider liturgical year. 

Thus, for example, in the 1662 one year lectionary, the readings appointed for the Third, Fifth, and Sixth Sundays after the Epiphany all provide opportunities for eschatological preaching, as does Ascension Day, the Sunday after Ascension Day, the First, Fourth, and Twentieth Sundays after Trinity, and All Saints' Day. Such an approach, rather than relegating eschatological preaching to the Sundays of December, would ensure that it is recognised and expounded throughout the year as an integral part of creedal faith. We might indeed suggest that the desire of the Advent purists to banish Christmas from the Sundays of Advent in order to focus exclusively upon the eschatological hope would actually sideline rather than mainstream preaching which focuses upon this hope.

Anglican piety and preaching over centuries; the 1662 readings for Advent III and IV; and the presence of eschatological themes in the wider one year lectionary (and the same point could be made about the three year lectionary) - these all make a case against the Advent purists. 

There is, however, another significant reason why I am not an Advent purist.  The Advent purists tend to exaggerate the spiritual significance of the liturgical calendar. Rather than being a helpful means of ordering time, with a noble lineage in Christian history, it is given an almost sacramental status. Instead of the liturgical year being made for the Church, it seems as if the Church was made for the liturgical year. 

This overlooks the considerable differences in the approach to the celebration of the Lord's Nativity between East and West.  Yes, the East does have its fast preceding Christmas, but it has no Sundays of Advent, with the two Sundays before the Nativity clearly anticipating it - the Sunday of the Forefathers of Christ and the Sunday before Nativity. In addition to this, The Nativity Canon is heard throughout late November and December, its opening words - "Christ is born; glorify Him!" - echoed in the carols of the West. This diversity is a reminder of the need for a prudent, modest understanding of the liturgical year, drawing back from exalted and extravagant claims for its meaning. 

Furthermore, as Eleanor Parker's excellent Winters in the World: A Journey through the Anglo-Saxon Year (2022) has also shown, the liturgical year in the West has been shaped by the natural seasons, by the landscape, by the experiences of night and day, winter and summer, planting and harvest. It has been as much shaped by culture as it has shaped culture. This challenges claims that stridently adhering to the liturgical year is a 'counter-cultural' stance.  Culture and the natural world inevitably shape the liturgical year, as expected from the reality of our experience as embodied, social beings.

A prudent, modest understanding of the liturgical year is found in the Prayer Book tradition. Observance of feasts and fasts, of Sundays and seasons was, of course, retained - contra the Puritans - as a useful means of shaping the Church's teaching, catechesis, prayer, and worship. At the same time, however, this has been without either extravagant claims as to its efficacy or a denial that culture and environment shape the liturgical year. The 1662 daily office lectionary, for example, is structured around the secular, calendar year. As Diarmaid MacCulloch has pointed out, the use of festival days after Christmas Day, Easter Day, and Whitsun was not so much about 'sacred time' as a practical measure to provide additional means for parishioners to receive the sacrament around the great feasts. Civic observances were routinely integrated into the liturgical year. And the retention of Black Letter Days in 1662 was, as the bishops declared at the Savoy Conference, "not that they should be so kept as holy days, but they are useful for the preservation of their memories and for other reasons, as for leases, law days, etc".

Secular calendar and liturgical calendar, culture and liturgy are inherently and necessarily co-mingled in another expression of the truth that grace does not destroy nature. This means that dramatic, extravagant, and - yes - Enthusiastic claims for Advent observance are quite artificial.  Banishing carols of the Nativity from Advent is no more counter-cultural than is imitating Scrooge in his rejection of Christmas.  It is, rather, to exalt a reified notion of the liturgical year over a modest, wise, prudent use of the liturgical calendar which will, quite naturally, have space for festive joy as Christmas approaches. 

(The first illustration is from The Church Times, 10th December 2008. It accompanies an interesting article by John Saxbee - former Bishop of Lincoln - suggesting that "edited highlights" of Christmas are appropriate during Advent.  I am not entirely convinced but it does at least offer another alternative to the Advent purists. The second illustration is from @notaunitofmass, of Old Trinity Church, Dorchester County, Maryland.)


  1. Lessons and Carols with some Christmas content is entirely appropriate, but I'd wait, like you did, till Advent IV to do it at the usual Sunday church time. However, as a special evening event or whatever, any time in Advent is fine and appropriate. There's plenty of late Advent music that's "Christmassy" (People Look East, Veni Emmanuel), and once the O's start, the blurring has already begun. And yet...some reserve is called for, Christmas does deserve a treatment that Advent does not get, hymns that just should not be sung at any other time, That Willcocks Word Chord, etc. We seem to know that Lessons and Carols is where the blurring happens best, where salvation history is proclaimed, where a larger public is invited to "Come and see". A strict Advent L&C leaves us a bit disappointed; a full Christmas L&C leaves us ready to cook the turkey, open the presents, and sleep in. After about Advent III, it's time to Look East and really get in the mood, knowing the presents are still wrapped and the turkey is still thawing, that Tomorrow He Comes...but not quite today.

    1. Totally agree Clint, there is a "blurring" that arrives in late Advent. Certainly pastoral provision for special carol services earlier in Advent is wise. I also agree that some reserve is indeed called for. So Christmas carols should be reserved for carol services, not used at normal Advent liturgies. You give an excellent description of why we wait and "really get in the mood". Merry Christmas! Brian.

  2. I was surprised to learn this year as I was preparing our church carol service that Common Worship Times and Seasons contains two quite different sets of carol service materials, one for during Advent and the other for during Christmas.
    Must confess we used one of the Christmas options…

    1. Yes, the provision for the Advent carol service in CW T&S is appropriate for the Advent Procession and for use in very early Advent. After that, it is Christmas carol services we are talking about - unless one is an Advent purist!


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