Blending the Old and New

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: MaryAnn is co-leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Manna for the People: Cultivating Creative Resources for Worship in the Wilderness.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Some holiday traditions, you’re born into.
Others, you stumble your way towards.
And some, you marry into.

My most steadfast Advent tradition falls in the last category. When Robert and I were dating, I visited his family one Christmas. On Christmas Eve morning, we all gathered in the dining room, with sticky rolls on the table and the stereo tuned to NPR, for the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast from Kings College, Cambridge, England.

I was no stranger to choral music, having sung in various ensembles while at Rice University. And for many people, a service of lessons and carols is nothing particularly novel. But I grew up Southern Baptist, and our family had also dabbled in non-denominational services, so the formal simplicity of the service’s liturgy was unfamiliar to me — scripture and song, scripture and song, beginning with Genesis 3 and concluding with John 1, interspersed with music, and capped with a single bidding prayer.

From the first notes of a single chorister singing “Once in Royal David’s City,” I knew I was in for something special. I would later learn that the boys in the choir don’t know ahead of time who will receive the honor of singing that first solo verse, which is heard by millions of people around the world. When the time comes to begin the service, the director lets the congregational chatter subside into a hush, gives the pitch, and points to one child: You.

Years later in seminary I would learn the idea, attributed to Kierkegaard, that the congregation is not the audience of worship, but an active participant; the audience is God. Choosing a chorister on the spur of the moment seems to enflesh this idea that worship is not a performance—not the result of a series of auditions for the “best” voice — but an offering to God.

Now, some twenty-five years later, that boyfriend whose family included me in their Christmas tradition has become my husband, and we have three children of our own. They hang in there pretty well with the broadcast, or at least the first 30-45 minutes, until their attention drifts to books, comics, or other quiet (!) pursuits.

We have continued to celebrate Christmas Eve with Kings College — except when Christmas Eve is on a Sunday, as it is this year. (Our family may still gather around the dining-room table that morning, however — one of the advantages of being a free-range pastor. We’ll see you that night for the candles.)

Like many traditions, the broadcast of the service of lessons and carols is a blend of old and new. The liturgy and choice of readings remain the same, and after more than two decades of tuning in, I am starting to recognize choral pieces that have made multiple appearances. The choir continues to hew to tradition in not allowing female singers, though there is usually at least one female reader of scripture. This traditionalism rankles, of course. But like many things in the church, I make my peace with it for the sake of the deep gifts I receive from it, while still hoping and yearning for change.

Other elements of the listening experience have changed — we now stream the broadcast online, and have been known to text other family members as we listen “together.” It was particularly special to tune in two years ago, when members of Robert’s family were in the congregation in Cambridge, a longtime dream made real.

Many of us who listen each year know the bidding prayer by heart, and feel a special stirring at this line:

Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but on another shore and in a greater light… that number which no man [sic] can number, with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we forevermore are one.

When I first heard those words, I appreciate the line as poetry. Now, I know countless beloved people who have journeyed to that shore, and I remember and give thanks for all of them. The line takes on new resonance year by year.

The blending of old and new feels like the embodiment of NEXT Church. At our best, NEXT Church seeks to translate an old, old story and timeless truth for a new context and culture. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, stodgy in its own way, has nonetheless stood the test of time for many people. Next year will be the 100th anniversary of its first broadcast. I think about a world still reeling from a global war in 1918, listening for strains of hope in the words from Isaiah and Luke, Genesis and John. The broadcast persisted even during another world war, when the location of the service was omitted for security reasons. It persists still, in a world yearning for the promise of Christ’s incarnation to be real once again.

MaryAnn McKibben is a writer, speaker, ministry/leadership coach, and outgoing member of NEXT Church’s strategy team. She has been listening to Christmas music since the week before Thanksgiving without apology.

We Need a Little Christmas, Right This Very Minute: On Singing Christmas Carols During Advent

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

One of the gifts of being in the NEXT Church is the opportunity to examine everything—literally everything—we do as people of God, to see whether our practices are still a faithful witness to Christ in the 21st century.

One of the challenges of being in the NEXT Church is… the very same thing.

I have thought for many years about the church’s observance of Advent—those four weeks leading up to Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, I get the importance of Advent themes. Spiritual preparation helps us not get carried away in a wave of kitschy detritus and overconsumption. There’s something important about not jumping the gun. There’s something lovely in letting the moment ripen. In an instant gratification culture, the discipline of waiting and watching could not be more vital.

On the other hand, it’s a challenge for the church to begin the celebration of Christmas on December 24. By that time, most people have been binging on yuletide cheer for several weeks and are ready for Christmas to end. We’re cranking up the Christmas carols when people may be sick of hearing them thanks to so many mall PA systems.

When we in the mainline church insist on Adventen purity (no Christmas music until X, no tree until Y), when we hold Christmas back with a whip and a chair, because it’s good for us, darn it!… then we are out of step with the world around us.

Maybe we’re out of step in an important, prophetic way. But I wonder. Some years ago I heard Tom Are of Village Presbyterian Church in Kansas City name this dynamic: “I just don’t think the church gets to tell the culture what time it is. Maybe in Christendom we could do that, but no more.”

In fact, there have been years when the people I serve seemed so desperate for the incarnation, so starved for good news, that it seemed downright cruel to withhold the message that the Lord is come. Is come, now, in early December, amid the shopping and the hustle and the stress. Other years, it seems appropriate to hit Advent themes more strongly. I wonder if pastors might plan their Decembers based on the rhythms and needs of the communities they serve first, rather than the dictates of the Revised Common Lectionary.

One of the arguments for Advent is that it provides space for people to grieve. Advent gives permission for people not to be jolly. But that’s a question of mood, not of message. Advent is about preparation and expectations unfulfilled. which can bring pain. But Advent waiting can also be deeply joyful (think of the hymn “People, Look East”). By contrast, the incarnation of Christ is cause for rejoicing, but Christmas can also be wistful and brooding (“In the Bleak Midwinter.”)

In other words, yes, Advent can be a corrective to the jingly jangly cheer that’s so jarring—even hurtful—to people who just aren’t feeling it. But Christmas can be that corrective too. There are ways to minister to the brokenhearted while also preaching Christmas. True Christmas, not the store-bought version.

Over the years I’ve thought about other reasons we might observe Christmas in December, specifically through the singing of Christmas carols. Some, I will admit, are more weighty than others:

1. The dramata-liturgical reason. (I think I made that word up.) Rather than erecting a rigid wall between the seasons, many of us see the boundary between Advent and Christmas as a semi-permeable membrane. The longing for Christmas blooms over the four weeks. This happens in many churches visually, with decorations growing more elaborate throughout December. It could happen musically as well.

So on Advent 1 we might sing all Advent hymns. Advent 2, we might do two Advent and one Christmas–one of the more obscure ones. Advent 3, same ratio, but we might break out with a well-known carol, e.g. “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” or “What Child is This?”. And so forth.

2. The numerical reason. Advent is twice as long as the Christmastide, yet there are twice as many Christmas hymns as Advent ones (at least in the current PCUSA hymnal—we’ll see what Glory to God offers us!). Why would we limit ourselves liturgically in December? It would be like planning worship with one hand tied behind our back.

3. The pedagogical reason. In the bygone years of Christendom, children learned and sang Christmas carols in school. I’m only 40, but even I remember this from my childhood. The shift in our culture means it’s our job—church and family—to teach Christmas carols to our children. I want my kids to know all three verses of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” I want them to know both tunes for “Away in a Manger” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

4. The musical reason. As pastor of a small church, I agree with David R. Ray, who urges small-church pastors to choose songs that their people know how to sing—even if those hymns may be a bit old-fashioned or have some iffy theology. In a large church, you’ve got a big choir or a critical mass of people who can carry an unfamiliar hymn. Not so in a small church. A beloved hymn well sung is a more joyful noise to the Lord then a theologically impeccable hymn that people fumble their way through. And few hymns are as familiar and beloved as Christmas carols. (That’s not to say that we don’t teach new ones, but the familiar ones are the spoonful of sugar that help the new ones go down.)

5. The pastoral reason. Life is difficult. Folks are hassled, grieved, cranky. It costs me so little to choose Christmas carols in December, and people genuinely appreciate it. Not because they are spiritually shallow and impatient, and “If only they got Advent they would love it as much as we clergy do!” But because they know the carols well and singing them brings them joy. Because Christmas hymns connect them with loved ones long gone. And the words can be powerful. The “dawn of redeeming grace” never fails to give me goose bumps.

In short, it is not necessarily kowtowing to culture to sing Christmas carols when people long to sing them. It is pastorally sensitive. (I’ll take the “kowtowing to culture” argument a lot more seriously when I hear about churches singing “Frosty the Snowman.”)

6. The evangelistic reason. December is a well-attended month of the church year. People want to be in church. It’s a good time to be attentive to guests. As such, it’s an act of hospitality to choose familiar hymns. Newcomers may not know what the heck a doxology is, and darn it, the church does a different version of the Lord’s Prayer than the one they know, but whew!, they can join in on ”Angels We Have Heard on High.”

There you go… I’ve made my best case. Let’s hear from you now. Hit me with your best shot in the comments or on our Facebook page.

MamdMaryAnn McKibben Dana is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church, a small and growing congregation in Falls Church, VA. She is the author of Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time, selling like hotcakes on Amazon and Chalice Press. She writes about “beauty, ideas, creativity, and the life of the Spirit” at her website, The Blue Room. She is on the strategy team of NEXT Church and a co-editor of the NEXT Church blog.

And she looks forward to singing “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice” this Sunday in worship.