I am always struck by how counter-cultural the Advent mass readings are each year. As the church is observing Advent with stories of Jesus challenging us to "Keep awake," and John the Baptist warning us to "prepare the way of the Lord," greater society will be celebrating with holiday parties, spending sprees, and an increasingly secular Christmas. The austerity of John the Baptist in conjunction with the teachings of Jesus is a strange bedfellow with the worldly busyness of the season.
This year Advent is shorter than usual, because Christmas Eve is on a Sunday, and so in the morning we celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Advent, and then in the evening we come back to celebrate the birth of Christ. Advent is a three-week season with four Sundays this year. Many churches are cancelling their services on the morning of December 24, as they maintain no one will come that morning. Other churches are simplifying their Sunday morning schedule. If they have two services regularly, they are only going to have one service. I even know of churches that are celebrating Christmas on December 24th in the morning, while choosing not to offer services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
And yet the Fourth Sunday of Advent, during all three eucharistic lectionary years, is a gem of a Sunday. It is on the fourth Sundays of Advent that we get to hear in Year A (BCP p. 889) the visit of the Angel Gabriel to Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25), in Year B (BCP p. 900) the visit of the Angel Gabriel to Mary (Luke 1: 26-38), and in Year C (BCP p. 911) the visit of Mary with Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56). On the Fourth Sundays of Advent we enjoy these stories as they inch us closer to the nativity of Jesus. These Sundays also afford churches a fuller celebration of the mysteries of the Annunciation (April 25) and the Visitation (May 31), as most churches do not celebrate these events on the actual days.
St. Mark's will not adjust our Sunday morning service schedule on December 24. Low Mass will be celebrated at 8:00 am, and High Mass with the Choir will be celebrated at 10:00 am. (As a slight concession, we will not offer Sunday School or the Adult Formation Class at 9:00 am, but we will have nursery care for those who desire it, and there will be no 6:00 pm sung mass and 7:00 pm Night Prayer.) The Midnight Mass of Christmas Eve will begin at 11:00 pm, and on Christmas Day the Solemn High Mass is at 10:00 am, and the choir will sing for both the eve and the day. Both the midnight mass and the Christmas Day mass will have a fifteen minute musical prelude. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which we normally have on the afternoon of the Fourth Sunday of Advent, will be on Saturday, December 23 at 4:00 pm, and a potluck reception follows the service.
A few years ago I heard a priest complain that they had to conduct services every Sunday. I remember being baffled by the complaint, and I thought, "why on earth did you sign up to become a priest if you didn't want to work on Sundays?" The same could be said of Christmas in a different way. Why would Christians not want to attend more church during the high holy days such as Christmas? In the end, we celebrate Christmas because of the birth of Christ. Society may pull us in one direction, but in the end we must remember why we give gifts and why we have seasonal parties. All of this is done because of the coming of the Christ Child. Our worship of God is more important than everything else this season. Let's not forget why we exist in the first place.
And yet there is another compelling reason to be fully open as a church for ministry this Christmas season. If the stores are opening their doors for the ease of the world, then we churches need to be opening our doors just as energetically. Having church on the morning of Christmas Eve for the Fourth Sunday of Advent is not to be viewed as extra work. Rather it is an opportunity to save souls and to share the love of God with people. Let us not lose the confidence that the world needs us to be open for the worship of God. We never know who might come to visit because they are seeking God and a deeper life in Christ.
During Advent we open up our lives to receive the gift of Jesus Christ, and our churches should reflect this reality. I look forward to worshipping God with you these coming Advent Sundays, and I am excited to celebrate our Lord's birth with you this Christmas. I am happy that Christ's life shall determine how we schedule our time and our calendars, and that the demands of the secular world this holiday season shall occupy the back seat.
Wishing you and your loved ones a holy Advent,
Father Paul Lillie