Season after Pentecost, 2023
I want to write to you today about the realities of planning music in the church for Advent and Christmas. Never mind Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, Ascensiontide, Whitsunday, Trinity Sunday, All Saints Day, or any other day or season in the church (and yes, church musicians work on those services too), I just want to focus on the specifics of what a church musician does in the month of December.
I have read recently two things that have prompted this reflection:
Together, these two encounters bring us face-to-face with the reality of what your local church musician tries to do: to minister, through music, in the temple of a God whose very being draws praise from our lips.
music in the church does not exist to be praised, it exists to praise
When I fill out a survey and it asks me to fill in the bubble for what industry I'm employed in, I'm always a bit baffled. Since I'm a musician, "Entertainment" often seems like a logical choice, but I, and others like me, make music within a certain context. I don't expect people to clap for me and I'm not an entertainer. Put simply: music in the church does not exist to be praised, it exists to praise. (Sometimes my only option is to put down something like "Human Resources" because it's the closest thing to what I do).
Because I'm not in Entertainment, and people are hungry for the Christmas message, I should be sympathetic to this argument that we should sing Christmas music before Christmas, right?
It would be easy just ignore this argument and write it off as an artifact from another era.
We Episcopalians -- and other "liturgical" denominations too -- are largely way past this. In fact, it's the Baptists, Evangelicals and other traditionally "non-liturgical" denominations that are advocating for a stricter adherence to the rhythms of the liturgical year.
Tangent: pithy, animated summary of what I'm about to say: WHAT SINGING CHRISTMAS CAROLS DURING ADVENT DOES TO ADVENT
But since we are taking about this, let's assume that the precise time that people are hungry for the Christmas message is the season the church calls Advent. Why wouldn't we want to use our rich treasury of Advent hymnody in preparation for Christmas? The Advent season is expectant and eschatological. It frames who Christ is, what Christ means, why Christ has come, and that Christ will come again. The Christmas season is nonpregnant (hey, it's an antonym of expectant) and incarnational. Both seasons are important to our theologies and our faith. It's easily said that there's no Resurrection without Good Friday. It's less easily said that there's no Christmas without Advent, and yet many in the church find the richness of this short season particularly meaningful.
I'd love to be able to give that word incarnational more weight; fully-present, in-the-moment, here-and-now, God-with-skin-on, Jesus walked on this earth, he breathed this air, etc.
So if people are hungry for the Christmas message in December, what should we do? We should preach it, we should sing it, we should pray it, we should live it as best we know how. And we should do this on Christmas.
Even the National Weather Service knows when Christmas is. Last week's forecast didn't say "Tuesday" it said "Christmas Day".
I think that's about as far as I need to argue this point.
Ot it would be, except that it's much same as the next point: that when we finally do introduce Christmas (not just the music but the lessons, and the sermon, and the prayers) on Christmas Eve, there's something "not right" with it.
We didn't sing my favorite carol, or I didn't like the sermon, or I couldn't follow the service.
And, if this author may be so bold, those for whom it is very important that it be "right" are those who skipped Advent. I'm not blaming them, I'm just asking what are they expecting to get out of Christmas services?
I'll tell you exactly what they're expecting: warm fuzzies. The experience is no longer about the community; it's focused entirely inward.
Lutheran theologian Marva Dawn describes this well when she discusses the "tourists" who help populate our churches on Christmas Eve and Easter Morning.
For them the liturgy is not the work of the people but rather a "commodity" that produces the "device" of good feelings. It's "ask not what you can do for this service, but what this service can do for you." They objectify the liturgy and evaluate it on it's success of connecting them with other times when they felt good at Christmas (i.e., when they were a child). And this really has much more to do with Santa Claus than it does with Jesus Christ.
I'm sorry to be a conservative about this, but I will remind you that I am not an Entertainer, and the tourists are, on some level, coming to be entertained.
And I may be a conservative, but I don't want to be a curmudgeon. I really believe deeply in the "Episcopal Church Welcomes You" stuff. I want people to come to our churches on Christmas, on Easter, and every other day that services are held in our churches.
And that's the problem with being conservative. Maybe I do not truly understand what compels someone to come to church on Christmas Eve, and not on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the First Sunday after Christmas, or the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Maybe there's some other failing of the church that is keeping people away from our doors, and the reality and primacy of Christmas draws them in. And if that's so, I'm very sorry. But let's not blame the music. And let's not try to fix the problem with music either.
You are most welcome in the parish where I serve and any other Episcopal Church I can think of. Our Lessons and Carols service on Christmas Eve is a largely choral service (sung by the Choir) with many hymns (seven to be precise) sung by all present. This popular service is modeled on a service from Truro, England, as handed down in the tradition from King's College, Cambridge. What I hope to bring to any parish where I serve is not imitation, but an appropriate iteration of this type of service informed by a working knowledge of the tradition as handed down to us (have you seen my spreadsheet?!).
the director "should be locked in a darkened room and never let out."
I'm not saying it's perfect, but what is?
And what about the note of complaint?
It said that the director "should be locked in a darkened room and never let out."
Oh wait, that wasn't the complaint that I received. That was the note received by Stephen Cleobury who directs a Lessons and Carols service heard annually by 30 million people.
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