Advent, Christmas Carols and Church Discomfort

Advent IconIn Bible class this past week we were looking at Romans 3. One of the observations was that when Paul really wants to ground something for his audience he quotes the Psalms. Romans 3:10-18 is one long mashing together of lines from the Psalms. The point behind that observation is that it was the hymnbook that anchored most people recognition of the theology. Everybody remembers the songs, or at least the good ones. Each branch of the Christian tree always had there own hymnbook. Within that book were the shared songs of all (Joy to the World, Amazing Grace) and those that were more special to a specific tradition (the 15 verse hymns of Martin Luther like From Heaven Above to Earth I Come). As beautiful I I find “From Heaven Above”, I would not expect a Baptist to know it. I would have expected Baptist and Lutheran to know O Little Town of Bethlehem or Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming. And even the committed atheist knows Silent Night.

I slipped into the subjunctive past there, I would have expected, because while I would have, I’m not sure if that expectation was realistic even in the past. And it is no longer operative today. First because the outlet for these songs is no longer as wide as it once were. As a small boy, the secular radio station in during Christmas would play Carols as specific as O Little Town of Bethlehem or It Came upon a Midnight Clear. Also, it was fading already, but that was a time when non-professionals sang regularly. Whether it was community choirs or Caroling or before any church function or just in the home, people sang. I don’t think that is true anymore, other than getting caught singing along to Katy Perry in the car to embarrass your kids. The only place these songs and singing happens on a regular basis in in church.

Now if you are a near every Sunday attender, even if you are skipping traditions, in a few years you will become accustomed and know the songs of that tradition at least to the point of recognition. And again in that subjunctive past, a larger percentage of Christians attended at those frequencies. Once upon a time, the rule of thumb was the ratio of attendance to membership was 1:2. I consider us fortunate to be in the 1:3 range. I know many pastors who hold 1:4 as the new guideline. If attendance is monthly (1:4) there are big gaps. For example, the season of Advent is 4 weeks. There are more, but I would say there are three great hymns of Advent: On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry, Hark the Glad Sound and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. (The Lutheran Specific gem might have been Come, Thou Precious Ransom Come). Talking with the person who is arranging some of the music for one of those Advent Services, she was surprised when nobody in the group knew O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. My reaction was that if your church attendance had been limited to Christmas as a kid why would you know it? And expanding that to the current situation, if you are in service once a month, in December that is probably not that third week (15th – 22th) that is the traditional place for O Come, O Come. O Come, O Come is ancient dating back to at least the 9th century as the antiphons in Evensong or Vespers. A verse a day from Dec 17th to the 24th focusing that last week before Christmas day. The advent Hymnbook, which for me personally is the beating heart of Christian piety and practice (for if we are not in a perpetual advent what are we in), is something that for many within the church is not familiar.

Now there are two reactions to this. The first is a general “dumbing down” of the hymnbook. You can do this by capitulating to the culture and bringing in professionals all the time. That is what CCM is. We replicate the radio sound you know, bring it into the sanctuary and have a professional sing it hoping that you will do what you do to the radio. You can also do this by shrinking the hymnbook. By singing the same hymns instead of 1 – 3 times a year singing a smaller number 3 – 6 times a year. If they don’t go with the text or the theological theme of the day, oh well. A third way is simple defiance which is really asking the faithful to keep alive this tradition and practice the faith. And this is where I want to bring in another article and address that third part of my title.

James Rodgers, layman and fellow LCMS’er, writes today in First Things:

Churches also need to take back some of the responsibility that they shifted onto American culture. Because of the (largely Protestant) religious public consensus in early and 19th Century America, social pressure effectively substituted for ecclesiastical discipline. We can debate whether this cultural arrangement ever worked all that well (as well as what prompted it), but whatever moral consensus ever existed has been strained by the upheavals of post-War American culture. Because of the earlier reliance on social consensus, and the consequent blurring of lines between society and Church, this cultural shift created an ecclesiastical challenge. American churches must now get into the business of distinguishing between themselves and the broader culture in ways that they didn’t in early American history.

For Christians who have been used to thinking of themselves as sitting in the mainstream of American society and culture, this can be a disturbing and disorienting shift. The upshot is that the self-identity of church communities in the U.S. must now be drawn much more sharply than it was in the past, or else they will simply evaporate with the evaporating (or evaporated) consensus. All this is to say that the Church and Christians in America can no longer free ride on the diffuse pseudo-Christianity of American culture. We must express the ontological reality that Jesus created his Church to be through baptism and the Supper: One with him, and one with one another

There was a time when O Come, O Come, Emmanuel I would have placed in the general cultural knowledge like Silent Night. As Dr Rodgers points out, the American church had it easy in a sense. The culture helped instruct in the faith. He calls it ecclesiastical discipline, but what I would call it is the law of practice. What does it mean to be a practicing Christian? The culture used to form and guide people to at least nominal practice. Today, true practice of the faith is counter-cultural. The church and the individual must take responsibility for their own practice. What does this mean? Well, in one sense it can be that stubborn defiance in regards to language and songs. You know you have walked into something different when the hymnbook is used. And it might require some learning. But in a deeper sense, the church is probably going to have to get used to proclaiming a clear law. Membership in American society is not membership or practice of the Christian faith. Spelling out what it means to live your baptism, to receive the body of Christ, and to incarnate that body in your world. The church has been vague for a long time accepting the general societal definition. That definition is now toxic to the true faith.

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