Advent, brief answers, Christmas

Frank Answers Briefly About Advent and Christmas

I’ve posted some of these answers previously on “Frank Answers Briefly” but it seems good to gather them together under one heading. If I receive other questions about customs and liturgical observances of the seasons of Advent and Christmas through The Epiphany of our Lord, I will add them chronologically, with the most recent answer on top.


About a Six- or Seven-Week Advent – November 19, 2020

About the Christmas Proclamation – December 13, 2019

About the Advent Wreath and the Color of the Candles – November 30, 2019

About the Christmas Tree – November 20, 2019

About Christmas Lectionary Readings – December 15, 2018

About Advent Hymns and Christmas Carols – November 19, 2018

Crow nativity scene

November 19, 2020

About a Six- or Seven-Week Advent

I am very interested in Advent. I heard that Advent was originally a much longer period of time (perhaps 40 days). Why was it truncated into only 4 weeks. Also what do you think of the movement to expand the season of Advent into 7 weeks?

The season of Advent developed in Western Europe (Gaul and Spain) in late antiquity. It was originally a six- or -seven-week season leading to the Epiphany on January 6 and beginning on the Sunday closest to St. Martin’s Day (November 11). Some think that, as in the Eastern churches, Epiphany was a day for public baptism and this roughly 40-day season (called Quadragesima sancti Martini, or St. Martin’s Lent) was a period of fasting in preparation for the baptisms, paralleling Lent. In that case the acceptance of the Roman feast of the Nativity of Jesus on December 25 would have interrupted the penitential season. So it may be more likely that the forty-day penitential season was simply a harvest-time fast that was broken by the feasting of the twelve days of Christmas plus Epiphany and not necessarily a preparation for Epiphany baptisms. Moreover, the fast was not every day except Sunday, as in the pre-paschal Lent, but only on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The figure of St. John the Baptist in the Advent readings may have related more to the theme of repentance than of baptism. This would have related to the theme of eschatological judgment in the readings of November and early December. The collects for the Gallican Advent Sundays usually began with “Stir up your power, O Lord, and come.” These prayers call for the coming of the Lord at the end of time to judge the living and the dead. Hence, repent.

Rome, in the meantime, knew nothing of Advent. They had the traditional Roman fast of the tenth month (December) known as the Ember Days. (The Ember Days were a quarterly fasting period spread throughout the year — March, June, September, December — and included the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of that week.) After the Ember Days fast Rome observed a two week period of preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus. The theme of the Annunciation was prominent.

So here are all the pieces of what we know as Advent. Around 1,000 A.D. there was a merger of the Roman and Gallican systems which resulted in the four week Advent with which we are familiar. It’s themes are the coming as Christ as eschatological judge, the ministry of John the Baptist and his call for repentance, and the Annunciation. At this point it was decided that the church year would begin on the First Sunday of Advent. This left the eschatological readings (like the parables of the kingdom we are reading in Year A from Matthew’s Gospel) to close out the old church year but also to transition into the new church year (which has been confusing to people). So it has been for a thousand years.

The pastoral problem is that secular society is focused on Christmas throughout December and the church’s Advent season becomes counter-cultural for some churches. Very little of the Advent character of these days is evident in their liturgical observances (for example, the singing of Christmas carols all during December). The proposal has been to have a kingdomtide season that begins with All Saints’ Day and lasts up until the Sunday of the Annunciation. Without even changing the three-year Revised Common Lectionary this would, in fact, restore the Gallican six- or seven-week Advent. There’s no need to begin the church year in the midst of this eschatological season. Let it begin on Christmas with the coming of Christ, the Word made flesh, into human life and society — or on Annunciation Sunday. In fact, in some Western societies, as in Britain, the civil year began on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation up until the 18th century when the Gregorian Calendar was finally adopted.

What stands against it? Ecumenical consensus. There is a consensus among Western churches for the thousand-year church year calendar we presently observe. Maybe there would be some interest among the churches that observe Advent to extend the season back to its original length. But nothing prevents presiders from wearing Advent-colored vestments (purple/blue) from the Sunday after All Saints until Annunciation Sunday, when white is used, reserving gold for Christmas. Change can also occur from the bottom up as an idea spreads quickly from church to church.

From Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” on the wall above the altar in the Sistine Chapel. “Stir up your power, O Lord, and come.” (Collect for Advent 1) “Lo! He comes with clouds descending” (Charles Wesley)

December 13, 2019

About the Christmas Proclamation

Question: Do Lutherans observing liturgical tradition use the Proclamation of the Birth of Christ as part of the Nativity of Our Lord [Christmas Eve] worship? Should a congregation consider adding this as part of renewing worship in a confessional Lutheran setting?

Answer: Some Lutherans observe the use the Proclamation of the Birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. It comes from the ancient Roman Martyrology.  It draws on Scripture to declare in a formal way the birth of Christ, in the ancient style of announcing a birth in a royal family. It begins with creation and relates the birth of our Lord to the major events and persons of biblical and secular history. The particular events contained in the Proclamation situate the birth of Jesus in the context of salvation history. There is nothing in this Proclamation that is contrary to the Lutheran Confessions.  In fact, it is a good review of salvation history for worshipers who might not be familiar with the biblical story.

It is intended to be proclaimed on December 25. This proclamation could be made on Christmas Eve. I preferred to proclaim it on Christmas Day at the beginning of the liturgy. It is more effective if it is chanted.  Musical notation is found in Appendix I of the Roman Missal, Third Edition. It may also be effective chanted on a monotone with a dip in tone (e,g, a minor third) at each semi-colon or period. For those who don’t have access to the Roman Missal, here is the text.

The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ

The Twenty-fifth Day of December,
when ages beyond number had run their course
from the creation of the world,
when God in the beginning created heaven and earth,
and formed man in his own likeness;
when century upon century had passed
since the Almighty set his bow in the clouds after the Great Flood,
as a sign of covenant and peace;
in the twenty-first century since Abraham, our father in faith,
came out of Ur of the Chaldees;
in the thirteenth century since the People of Israel were led by Moses
in the Exodus from Egypt;
around the thousandth year since David was anointed King;
in the sixty-fifth week of the prophecy of Daniel;
in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
in the year seven hundred and fifty-two
since the foundation of the City of Rome;
in the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus,
the whole world being at peace,

JESUS CHRIST, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence,
was conceived by the Holy Spirit;
and when nine months had passed since his conception,
was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah,
and was made man:
The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

November 30, 2019

About the Advent Wreath and the Color of the Candles

What is the origin of the Advent wreath and what should be the color of the candles?

Frank answers: If you don’t mind I’m going to quote what i wrote in Introduction to Christian Liturgy.

“It is generally thought that a wheel or wreath of evergreens was a symbol in northern Europe long before the arrival of Christianity. The circle symbolized the eternal cycle of the seasons while the evergreens signified the persitence of life in the midst of winter. Some sources suggest the wreath—reinterpreted as a Christian symbol—was used in the Middle Ages, others that it was established in Germany as a Christian custom only in the sixteenth century, and others that the Advent wreath was not invented until the nineteenth century. This last theory credits Johann Heinrich Wichern (1808–1881), a Lutheran pastor in Germany and a pioneer in urban mission work among the poor, as the originator of the modern Advent wreath. During Advent, children at the mission school Wichern founded in Hamburg for juvenile delinquents (known as “The Rough House”) would ask daily if Christmas had arrived. In 1839, he set up a large wooden cartwheel with nineteen small red and four large white candles. A small candle was lit successively every weekday during Advent. On Sundays a large white candle was lit.

“The custom gained ground among Lutheran churches in Germany and evolved into the smaller wreath with four candles known today. Roman Catholics in Germany began to adopt the custom in the 1920s, and in the 1930s it spread to North America. In Roman Catholic churches purple candles were used, except for pink on the third Sunday (Gaudate—“Rejoice,” from the Introit, “Rejoice in the Lord always”), reflecting the liturgical colors. In Lutheran use white candles were used on all four Sundays. More recently, blue has become a liturgical color of Advent in Lutheran churches, and there have also been blue candles, or white candles with blue rings. Some Protestants, who think that red is a liturgical color for Christmas, use red candles.

“Originally a custom used in homes and schools, the Advent wreath has been brought into the churches and lighted during public worship. There is no prescribed liturgical use of the Advent wreath and there is no authoritative set of meanings for the candles. The Advent wreath is more properly the center for home devotions. Extensive devotions around the Advent wreath within the liturgy would not be appropriate.”

— from Frank C. Senn, Introduction to Christian Liturgy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), pp. 111-12. This and fifty other questions are answered in this book that has been called a “liturgical catechism.” Available from Fortress Press and Four chapters answer questions about the church year and its liturgical observances.

November 20, 2019

About the Christmas Tree

Question: People put their Christmas tree up after Thanksgiving and take it down the day after Christmas. Isn’t this way too early to put it up and take it down?

Frank answers: Yes, this is too early. The Christmas tree then competes with the Advent wreath as the central symbol of Advent in the Christian home and in church.

One origin of the Christmas tree is it’s use as a prop for the Paradise Play that was performed on Christmas Eve Day. December 24 was also the feast of Adam and Eve. It commemorated the first Adam, who disobeyed God and dragged down humanity with him, just as December 25 was calculated as the birth of the new Adam who obeyed God, even unto death on the cross, and drew humanity up with him. (See “Frank Answers About the Date of Christmas”) The evergreen tree was a suitable prop for tree of life in the middle of the paradise garden. Fruit, such as apples, were hung on it — fruit that Eve saw was good to look at but that God said was forbidden. (This may be the origin of the idea that Eve gave Adam an apple to eat.) The tree was set up in the church for the mystery play performed on December 24 and kept up on Christmas. Martin Luther is credited with the idea of placing candles on the tree to symbolize Christ as the light of the world.

So the Christmas tree needs to be up by December 24. It may remain up through the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, thus encompassing the twelve days of Christmas. Some churches have a Christmas tree burning after the Epiphany liturgy if local fire ordinances allow this. Symbols in the home should follow the customs of the church. So the Christmas tree in the home should be set up and decorated by December 24 and taken down after the feast of the Epiphany.

December 15, 2018

About Christmas Lectionary Readings

Why are there three readings for Christmas Day in the lectionary? Are these different readings for Years A, B. and C?

Frank Answers: People (= pastors) have been confused about this ever since Lutheran Book of Worship gave three readings marked A, B, C for Christmas Day. Evangelical Lutheran Worship tried to fix this confusion by marking each set of readings A, B, C, indicating that they may all be read every year, and then further specifying (in red!) “I. Particularly appropriate for Christmas Eve, II. Particularly Appropriate for Christmas Day, III. Particularly Appropriate for Christmas Day.” Even this doesn’t give all the information. Set II (Gospel: Luke 2:8-20) should be for an early service on Christmas Day. Set III (Gospel: John 1:1-14) should be for a later service on Christmas Day.

Usually there is only one set of readings per liturgical day. But it was customary for pilgrims to the Holy Land to have a Eucharist at the pilgrimage site with a Gospel and other readings related to the event commemorated at that site, and then return to Jerusalem where there the Eucharist for the day would be celebrated. On the Feast of the Epiphany (on which the Nativity of Christ was celebrated) pilgrims walked to Bethlehem and celebrated the Nativity of Christ in the Church of the Nativity with a midnight Eucharist, then walked back to Jerusalem for the eucharistic celebration at dawn on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6). This was replicated in Rome in the fifth century, but on December 25. A cave-like grotto in the subterranean chapel of the basilica of St. Mary replicated the cave at Bethlehem. The midnight mass was celebrated there followed by a morning mass at the usual hour at St. Peter’s Basilica. In the sixth century a third mass was celebrated by the pope on December 25 at the church dedicated to St. Anastasia of Sirmium, a martyr highly venerated in the East, probably out of respect for the Byzantine governor since this was the imperial church. So three sets of readings entered the papal Gregorian Sacramentary, which was exported on requests from Frankish kings Pippin III and Charlemagne for use in their realm. This practice was implemented throughout Western Europe and the three sets of readings have been in the Western liturgical books ever since.

We could accommodate all three sets of readings because many of our churches have an early and later service on Christmas Eve, for which sets I and II would be used. Set III is used on Christmas Day to reflect on the Incarnation, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth”.

November 19, 2018

About Advent Hymns and Christmas Carols

Frank, I have been approached by a pack of grandmothers who are disturbed by the fact that their grandchildren do not know standard Christmas hymns. We sing them during the season, of course, but they are not taught in schools these days or apparently in the children’s homes. So, of course, their solution is to get rid of Advent, which most of them dislike despite consistent and loving teaching. I do agree that there is a problem, but disagree on the solution. First, if the kids went caroling with us they would sing those songs 4 or 5 times each. Second, the solution is not to destroy Advent but to help parents teach the culture of the Church at home. I am going to institute some home helps, but I also would not mind extending Christmas into Epiphany a bit. But, what would you do?

Answer: I think you’re on the right course. Advent is an important season at the beginning of the church year and Lutherans have a rich tradition of Advent hymns. We can’t get them all in on four Sundays. Of course, the more eschatological Advent hymns, like “Wake, Awake for Night is Flying” and “The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns” and “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending”) are also appropriate for the last several Sundays in the church year, which were once a part of the Western European (i.e. Gallican) six-or-seven-week Advent. Christmas carols should be delayed liturgically until Christmas Eve.

But extending Christmas Carols into Epiphany is quite appropriate, especially those which have Epiphany-related themes of three kings or wise men or the star (such as “The First Noel,” “We Three Kings,” “He Whom Shepherds Once Came Praising,” and “Bright and Glorious is the Sky”). But I could see “cradle songs” like “What Child Is This”, “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly,” “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” and “Away in a Manger” being sung during Communion. “Angels We Have Heard on High” could be sung as the Song of Praise (“Gloria in excelsis Deo”). “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” “Oh, Come, All Yet Faithful,” “Angels, from the Realms of Glory,” “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice,” “Let Our Gladness Have no End,” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” could be entrance songs on the Sundays after the Epiphany. And what better sending hymn is there than “Go Tell It on the Mountain”—anytime. Maybe the Festival of the Presentation of our Lord and Purification of Mary on February 2 (forty days after the Nativity) could be one final time for a Christmas carol sing. By that point maybe even your grandmothers are ready to put away the carols for another year.

Pastor Frank Senn, STS

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