Friday Five: The Advent of Advent

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At RevGalBlogPals, Mary Beth Butler invites us each to sit quietly…as Mary sits in the photo above…and consider five things about Advent. They might be images, practices, hymns, anything you like. Here are my five:

1. For me, Advent is always a chance to focus on the Magnificat in one form or another, whether that’s preaching on it, listening to songs connected with it, paying attention to the wide range of art that has tried to capture that moment between Mary and Elizabeth, or presenting adult education sessions on it. I love the strength of it, the hope of it, the poetry of it. It’s Advent at its best.

2. In the last congregation that I served, one of my favorite events was the Advent party on the second Sunday of Advent, when a good percentage of the congregation ate together, packed items for Christmas Eve on the streets of New York City among the homeless poor, made crafts of various kinds, decorated a very large tree in our Fellowship Hall and sang Christmas carols along with the Mediocre Ensemble, an orchestra made up of musicians of all levels and ages. Some people played well and played regularly, some pulled instruments out of attics or basements and only played once a year, some knew all the notes and played them easily, and some could only play a few of the notes in each song. Some years I played guitar with them (though more often I was helping coordinate another part of the evening and couldn’t be with them for the rehearsal in the first hour).   But when that orchestra played We Wish You a Merry Christmas and the lights went on for the first time on the tree, I knew we were in Advent.

3. For many years, Advent has also been a time that I associate with my workload ramping up big time and then slowing down a bit because the semester is coming to an end. In the third week of Advent, my academic semester ends. My grades are due well before Christmas so I’m swamped with papers, projects, and final exams to plow through in that week. But then, once they’re graded the pace and focus change a bit. In the many years when I was working in a parish it meant being able to move my attention entirely to parish preparations for Christmas and was a way for me to really focus on waiting and preparing for Christmas.

4. Nowadays, Advent means I begin to look forward to practicing for the Messiah sing-a-long. This will be my third year spending late November and early December getting ready for the New Westchester Symphony Orchestra’s Messiah sing-a-long and it’s beginning to become a new Advent tradition. The first year I was doing this, there were a huge number of notes that I didn’t yet know how to play, much less play in tempo, on my flute. Last year at this time, I had learned the fingering of all the notes, but getting the proper sound out of them was still a challenge. This year, it’s speed on some of the pieces like “Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion” that is where I’m putting my effort.

5. Years ago, when Kathy and I first moved into our house in Dobbs Ferry, I ordered copies of Christmas carols for each of the instruments that our children played with the dream that, during Advent, we’d find time to take out our guitars, saxophone, violin, keyboard, and drum that were still being stored at our house even though most of the children had moved out. We’d sit in front of our Christmas tree, grab the carol sheet music, and play together.  It never happened. The sax was taken to a new home, the drum was given away, and the music stayed stored with the rest of our sheet music. Last year, when Kathy retired she began to play clarinet and I ordered a clarinet copy of the same book of carols. This year, she’s learned enough that she can play with me. Even before Advent has arrived, we’ve begun to rehearse some of the carols. I’m looking forward to an Advent when we can sit in front of the lighted tree and play together.

A Broader Understanding of Saints and Souls

I love this Sunday.  It is a day to celebrate all in our lives that has reflected God and to make peace with all that has moved away in the direction of brokenness and incompleteness.

Technically yesterday (November 1st) was All Saints Day—usually celebrated as the Christian version of Memorial Day, a day for remembering those who have gone before us in faith and we traditionally hold up and honor those who led exemplary lives. In the Reformation, while Protestants got rid of individual saints days, All Saints Day remained because of the role of the grace of Christ in the lives of saints.  (“Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might” echoes in my head as I write.) And All Saints Day is part of the dominical calendar, which means that if the day doesn’t land on a Sunday in any given year, it can be transferred to the following Sunday (in this case, today, November 2nd).

But people began to grumble that such a holy day left out many people, including those who had no chance to emulate previous saints and those who, like me, had such a chance but had at least a few major shortcomings.  So the Odilo, the great peacemaker who had already brought about a Truce of God between southern France and Italy, again became a peacemaker and moved in the direction of a more inclusive church by creating All Souls Day on November 2nd.

So today, liturgically, we celebrate both heroes and nobodies—all the people, bringing home the fat that every one of us—saints and souls together- are part of God’s inclusive welcoming creation.

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I suppose that was the basic point of the film St Vincent that I saw yesterday, a film that was predictable and sentimental, but because of the wonderful acting, was still a pleasure to watch.  You knew as soon as Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd) announced that Oliver’s class was going to study and do reports on the saints, that Oliver was going to choose Vincent (Bill Murray) as his model for a saint because, despite his gambling, drinking, and hanging out in strip clubs, Vincent was a deeply caring man- the perfect all saint’s/all soul’s day model.  The film reminds us that we too often divide the world into heroes and nobodies when, with God’s grace we can yet make this a place in which all God’s children are seen as souls, in which each of us is seen as a saint in the making.

  Holding onto that reminder I wish there was a modern Odilo of Cluny, because as much as I love this All Saints/ All Souls Day, I don’t think it goes far enough.  All God’s children are to be seen as souls, as saints in the making, and all God’s children include so many more than just human children. Often I have learned more of what it means to be saintly from God’s other non-human children rather than from others of my species so a celebration that leaves them out seems to fall very short.

If God made all creation good and all beings fall at least a little short of what God means for us each to be, isn’t All Saints/All Souls Day about all of us? How do we rework our theology to make that clear? How can we expand a liturgical day like today to count in God’s non-human two-footed children, God’s four-footed children, God’s crawlers and swimmers, and God’s rooted children who dance today as the Spirit shakes their branches?   How might we imagine a church that would count all saints and souls, not just human ones, in on a regular basis?  How would our mission and outreach change if we lived into that kind of broader understanding of saints and souls? What would such a church then look like?   These are questions that I struggle toward answering these days because it’s that broader, more welcoming, more inclusive church in which I believe and want to bring into being.