Mr. Perkins, the rector of Christ Church Hampton’s Corners, used to be a card-carrying member of the Advent police. The Advent police are those self-righteous, self-appointed guardians of Advent who seek to ensure that no Christmas parties are held, no “Merry Christmases” are uttered, no hall shall be decked or holly hung, no carols sung, until Christmas is literally upon us, at least in the Church.
Out there in the world it is a battle already lost. The Advent police are powerless against the consumerist forces of capitalism when, immediately following Hallowe’en, carols start being heard in malls and store windows are decorated. But in the Church, the Advent police still have real power, especially if they are the rector of a parish. When the first sign of giving way to the sin of early celebration begins to rear its ugly head, the Advent police begin their self-righteous admonishments and superciliously explain the purpose of “Advent waiting.”
“Advent is a time of preparation, of anticipation,” they explain to the faithful members of the altar guild on the first Sunday of Advent, who simply want to make the church look nice with some fresh cedar garlands. This unwelcome catechesis goes something like this: “So much of the world gives in to instant gratification, but we as the Church must not! It is a spiritual discipline to wait, as the rest of the pagan world is already celebrating the birth of a child they do not believe in, we are waiting in anticipation for his coming!” The look of saddened and frustrated faces does nothing to sway the Advent police. The Advent police are a heartless and hardened bunch. No tidings of comfort and joy, no peace on earth or good will to men must ever be proclaimed in Advent. They explain that traditionally Advent was something of a mini-Lent. We ought not to be celebrating, but considering our sinfulness, repenting, as John the Baptist directs us, lest we find ourselves fleeing from the wrath that is to come. We must be readying our lamps like the wise virgins. We must be preparing for the coming of the bridegroom. While the rest of the world is getting excited, we ought to solemnly reflect on things like the last judgement.
Our friend Mr. Perkins was an ardent defender of this policy, so much so that in addition to the elimination of the Gloria in Excelsis, he also banned the use of “Alleluia” as one does in Lent. Somewhere along the line, in utter devotion to Advent solemnity, he fell under the mistaken impression that this was required of the faithful.
This all fell apart one year for Mr. Perkins one Sunday in Advent in the early years of his ministry. The service had ended with the favourite Advent hymn, “Lo, he comes with clouds descending, once for favoured sinners slain.” The word “Hallelujah” is used no fewer than seven times in that hymn. Having forbidden the use of the word during Advent and replaced the Gloria with the Kyrie, he had preached vociferously on waiting and preparing and holding back on Christmas until Christmas Eve. As the little line of people exited his tiny parish church, Miss Lillian Littlestature, a spinster of 92, looked up at him and asked him quizzically, “Mr. Perkins, if we aren’t allowed to say ‘alleluia’ how come we get to sing it in the hymn?” Mr. Perkins was stymied. He had been singing the hymn lustily and with good courage, as John Wesley might have said, and had forgotten himself all the while. This was one of those rare occasions in which he was speechless on a matter of theology. He tried for an answer but could not find one. He simply did not know what to say.
After the service, he hurried back to his study and counted up the number of times “Hallelujah” was used in the hymn. Yes, seven times. Then he went through the Advent section in the hymn book and realized just how many Advent hymns included alleluias. Was he wrong all these years? It couldn’t be. He held a Master of Divinity from Trinity College. Surely, he knew what he was doing with respect to liturgical planning. But there it was, in black and white, in the sung tradition of the Church, again and again, alleluias in Advent. Celebration in Advent. In his own mind, and amongst all of his colleagues, at least the ones he respected, Advent was a time of deep reverence, solemnity, preparation and waiting, not celebration. Now, he was questioning everything he held sacred, his liturgical world had been turned upside down. What was he to do? Was he a fraud? That night he could not sleep as he pondered these things over and over again in his heart and mind. What had he gotten wrong?
Monday was his day off, and although he was sleep deprived, he drove into the neighbouring town for a trip to the mall. (In those days, Hampton’s Corners had not yet quite acquired that status of having a mall, although I am now told that there are several big box stores on the outskirts of town.) He hated trips to the mall. It felt to him like a trip into pagan territory. But Mr. Perkins had nephews and nieces to buy presents for, as well for his mother and for his brother and sister. Mr. Perkins took heart, stirred up his courage, and faced the inevitable and discouraging duty of Christmas shopping.
After some time of walking around the mall aimlessly, looking in store windows, he finally steeled himself for the task, and after a couple of hours his arms were full of packages and bags, and Mr. Perkins found himself feeling pretty satisfied about how well he had done with his Christmas shopping. He decided he should stop at the Tim Hortons in the food court and have a cup of coffee as a reward for his efforts. And so he did. Mr. Perkins placed his parcels and bags on the table and floor, breathed a sigh of relief, and began to take drink his coffee. Over the loudspeaker he could hear Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney…
Busy sidewalks, city sidewalks dressed in holiday style
in the air there’s a feeling of Christmas.
Hear the snow crunch, see the kids bunch, this is Santa’s big day
And above all this bustle you hear…
Silver bells, silver bells,
It’s Christmas time in the city…
Mr. Perkins found himself humming along, and finally, quietly singing the lyrics. His heart was warmed and he felt satisfied.
Then suddenly, he felt horrified. He was enjoying Christmas, and it was only December 13th. It was still Advent! In this consumerist frenzy, he had been led astray! He had let himself slip into the joy of the season that was reserved only for Christmas Eve and the twelve days that followed. Here he was, in this temple of pagan consumerism, enjoying Christmas! What had he done?
But then he looked around and saw the faces of the shoppers, and he realized that Bing and Rosemary were right, in the air there was a feeling of Christmas. Then, in the distance, he heard the silver bells of the Sally Ann kettle ringer. People were happy, excited, both anticipating and celebrating at one and the same time. Then, over the PA system, he heard Perry Como sing, “Hark the Herald Angels sing, Glory to the newborn King.” And for the first time, he realized that Advent was really something of a show, not a bad show, perhaps even a necessary show, but it was a show, a piece of theatre. It is not ultimately what is real. What is real is that two thousand years ago, a babe was born to us. And so, Christ has come, and while it is true we await his coming again in glory on the last day, and while it is true we wait for him to be born again in our hearts, the hearts of all, he has actually come. The waiting is over, and it has been over for a long time. The time to celebrate is now.
Here, in the profane setting of the food court of the mall, drinking his “Timmy’s,” Mr. Perkins realized for the first time that Advent is simply a sacred drama in which we ritually re-enact the waiting – a waiting that points to a sacred truth: Christ has come. We can both celebrate and anticipate at one and the same time. The faces of the people said it all. From the elderly woman placing a folded bill in the Sally Ann kettle to the little child skipping along, licking his candy cane. In the air there was a feeling of Christmas, and it was really quite wonderful.
It was on that Monday in Advent, many years ago, that Mr. Perkins turned in his membership card as an officer of the Advent police. Never again was he anxious about singing alleluias in Advent, and while he did hold back on the use of the Gloria in Excelsis till Christmas Eve, in subsequent years he permitted the tree to go up in the church, and yes, even to be lit. He allowed poinsettias to sneak their way into the chancel in mid-December. He allowed carols during the pageant on Advent IV, and when participants filed out of church on that last Sunday of Advent and wished him a “Merry Christmas,” he wished them a Merry Christmas back.