Advent is one of those seasons of the Christian calendar that most non-liturgical Christians have heard of, but usually don’t quite understand. Through the popularity of Advent devotionals and Advent Calendars, many come to assume that Advent begins on December 1st. This is a good approximation, and is handy for re-usable devotional resources. But in actuality, Advent begins on the 4th Sunday before Christmas Day. As a result of this, Advent could be anywhere from 22 to 28 days long.
“There was evening, and there was morning, the first day.” As the creation story of Genesis 1 accounts evening before morning, Jewish religious practice went on to observe a “day” as beginning at sundown. The Sabbath, therefore, begins on Friday evening and lasts until Saturday evening. This tradition is retained in Christian practice: the liturgical day begins in the evening. This does not affect ordinary life most of the time, but for Sundays and holidays, this means that their observance can begin on Saturday evening.
What’s the deal?
Christmas Eve is one of the famous examples of this liturgical rule. The celebration of Christmas begins with Vespers, or Evening Prayer on December 24th, or, in more prominent tradition today, with an evening Communion service.
But the Christmas holiday takes this tradition a step further. Although attending worship on Christmas Eve “counts” for observing Christmas Day, there are different Propers – collects and readings – for different Christmas celebrations. Christmas Eve has one, Christmas Sunrise has a second, and the third is intended to be the “principle” or primary worship service on Christmas Day. Easter is the only other holiday in the Anglican tradition that has the same phenomenon of multiple different Propers for the same liturgical day.
This makes for a much richer celebration and study for the Christmas holiday compared to most holy days. It can also make for an unusually full schedule for the diligent church-goer this year:
Sunday morning: 4th Sunday of Advent
Collect: Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and as we are sorely hindered by our sins from running the race that is set before us, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and forever.
Morning Prayer: Isaiah 35; Matthew 25:31-end
Holy Communion: 2 Samuel 7:1-17; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
Sunday evening: Christmas Eve
Collect: O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the revelation of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting.
Evening Prayer: Zechariah 2:10-end; Hebrews 2:10-18
Holy Communion: Isaiah 9:1-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)
Monday: Christmas Day
Collect: Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born this day of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and forever.
Sunrise Communion: Isaiah 62:6-12; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-14)15-20
Morning Prayer: Isaiah 9:2-7; Matthew 1:(1-17)18-25
Principle Communion: Isaiah 52:7-12; Hebrews 1:1-12; John 1:1-18
Evening Prayer: Isaiah 7:10-14(15-25); 1 John 4:7-end
It’s worth pointing out that amidst all these worship services appointed, there are only one or two minor repeats in the Scripture readings. In two days you could attend church eight times and hear 19 different passages from the Bible read, not counting the various Psalms prayed along the way!
What’s the big deal?
Some, especially those from outside the liturgical traditions, see these long lists of worship services, balk, and exclaim that it’s too complicated. Why not just simplify it and have your Christmas service on Sunday? It would be a lot more convenient.
But the liturgy does not exist to be convenient, it exists to shape us as the One Body of Christ and to enable us to glorify God accordingly. The liturgy directs us to interrupt our secular routines and focus on the sacred. If we conduct our worship entirely according to what is convenient for us, or pleasing to us, or the most accessible, then worship becomes not about God but about us. The goal of worship is no longer the glory of God, but the comfort of man. We need only step inside the average evangelical church today to see some of the unhealthy fruit of this tendency – a worship life devolved into musical entertainment with a feel-good message that dutifully mentions the Bible along the way.
Following a common plan, whatever the local circumstances or preferences may be, unites us across the demographic boundaries that would otherwise divide us. And if the plan is sound, as we believe our Prayer Book tradition to be, the benefits of adhering to it are great! The full message of the Advent season – all four Sundays of it – is carried through before we proceed to Christmas. We practice the discipline of waiting: we wait for Christmas to arrive at its due time; we wait for the arrival of Christ in God’s own time; we wait for the work of the Holy Spirit to proceed in his own time.
Thus, we who do it “by the book” are not mere liturgical sticklers and killjoys, but are seeking to allow the Gospel message to work upon us in real time throughout the year apart from our own volition and direction. As we practice the discipline of worshiping under a set order, we learn the deeper lesson of obeying our Lord himself in all aspects of life, however inconvenient or uncomfortable that may be.
“You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).