Happy New Year. At least for the church, this is the beginning of a new church year which begins with the season of Advent. The season of Advent is now here and for organists, choir directors and pastors in liturgical churches, there will be one common complaint: “Why can’t we sing Christmas Carols?”
For many Christians unfamiliar with the liturgical year, there are several misunderstandings about the meaning of the Advent season. Some people may know that the Advent season focuses on expectation and think that it serves as an anticipation of Christ’s birth in the season leading up to Christmas. This is actually incorrect.
During this season of preparation, the original intention was that Christians would spend 40 days in penance, prayer, and fasting to prepare for the coming of Christ. But the “coming” that the 6th century Roman Christians tied to Advent and had in mind was not Christ’s first coming in the manger in Bethlehem, but his second coming in the clouds as the judge of the world as told in the book of Apocalypse or Revelation. Originally, there was little connection between Advent and Christmas.
In those days before electricity, the communal purpose for this season of fasting was to ensure that the winter storage of food would last the rest of the winter so, this forty day period of fasting would help stretch out what was stored in root cellars and pantries. That is also the origins of the famed fruitcake. All the food which began to show signs of early spoiling would be baked into a cake helping to preserve it a little longer. Fat Tuesday right before the season of Lent, BTW, originated from the problem of food spoiling because of the spring thaw so, communities held a feast to dispense with all the food that was beginning to thaw and go bad.
By the 6th century, Roman Christians tied Advent to the coming of Christ and it was not until the Middle Ages that the Advent season was erroneously linked to Christ’s first coming at Christmas.
Likewise, the Christian season of Christmas actually begins on Christmas Eve and lasts for twelve days, as told in the song, “12 Days of Christmas.” This is distressing to people in liturgical churches around the world where they don’t sing Christmas Carols until Xmas Eve (the “X” is Greek for “Chi” or Christ) because the carols are already playing on the radio and in the malls. The first day of Christmas is actually December 25th. The Christmas season and the 12 Days song, ends on January 6 which is the date (approximately two years later) that the three astrologers (Wisemen or Kings) were sent out by King Herod whose only intention for sending out the “Three Kings” was to find and kill Jesus. That is why two of the “gifts” they brought were frankincense and myrrh. Those spices were used for death rituals and embalming which was also intended to help mask the stench of Jesus’ decomposition during the long journey back to Herod.
When Herod heard that the three astrologers had failed him in killing Jesus, Herod then ordered the death of all two year old boys in an attempt to kill Jesus in a mass purge. The church remembers their “sacrifice” and calls it the “Feast of the Holy Innocents.” It is written that 14,000 or 144,000 boys were murdered. In reality, the town of Bethlehem was quite small (as noted in the Carol) and some experts agree that only 14 boys were murdered while Jesus and his family secretly escaped.
Somehow this rich history of struggle, survival, longing, hope, preparation, deceit and metanoia, has been usurped by the saccharine, warm, fuzzy holiday and season we celebrate today. What happened? Oh, $$$$$$. Some people will be upset with this blog posting because they have emotionally and poignantly tied this season to their own feelings, family traditions and memories. That is not the original intention of the season but salvation is.
The church originally believed that Christ was coming but not to be born, but to judge you and the truth in your heart. Are you ready? I am, I got him a toaster.