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On Advent and Liturgical Fundamentalism

adventcandlesI recently posted a rant on Facebook about how so many ministry leaders were posting about the color of Advent candles and singing Christmas hymns in Advent. It went something like (well, exactly like) this:

“I have no patience for debates over the color of Advent candles and whether or not to sing Christmas songs in Advent. God became incarnate *mind blown*...and candles and carols are all some church professionals on Facebook can post about? Give me a break.”

I had seen so many colleagues posting about these things that I finally snapped and posted about it. 139 likes, 45 comments, and 5 shares later, it seems to have hit a nerve. Facebook informs me that its on of my most popular posts of 2013. Oh, well.

Here’s my problem with all this.

Spoiling Advent

First, its adiaphora, which is a nice Greek word that means “it doesn’t matter”—it is inconsequential for salvation, and, in this case, one might say, just inconsequential whether your candles are purple, pink, or blue. So, why were so many people spending so much time debating it?

More importantly, there were so many posts that it seemed the season of Advent was being announced on Facebook with clerical arguments about candles and hymns. The overwhelming public witness about Advent was not about counter-cultural waiting, repentance, and anticipation of the incarnation. It was about which hymns and candles to use.

Isn’t this just like the church? We get into these arguments about these little things that only church people care about and everyone else beyond the church (and you know there are more and more of those, right?) must find it so completely irrelevant.

No one beyond the church cares about these things. Really. No one. And we wonder, “Why aren’t people coming to our churches?”

My co-author on Click2Save, Elizabeth Drescher, who is writing a new book on the religiously unaffiliated made the point by spoofing it:

“Must the candles match the alb? How many vergers are essential for the ritual lighting? Should the candles be in a row or a circle? All of these questions routinely came up in my interviews with the religiously unaffiliated. Said Raymond, a former Lutheran from St. Paul, MN, ‘I couldn't take it! The candles were wrong every freaking Advent! Every one! That's why I eventually became a Neopagan. They get candles right.’”

Liturgical Fundamentalism

What I see in this and many conversations around the church is a form of liturgical fundamentalism. We make the liturgy itself into God, in much the same way fundamentalists make the Bible into God. And whether you follow the proper rubrics becomes the measure of the quality of your leadership, and in some of these debates, apparently, your character.

At its worst, it becomes what I’ve come to call “liturgical fetishism”—getting so into the bows and the choreography and how many times the make the sign of the cross over the hosts that we drown out the Word and the powerful and beautiful simplicity of the Sacraments—all as if those little details are effective for salvation, or even proper worship. They’re not.

This is not what I learned in seminary, from my wonderful liturgy professor, Gordon Lathrop. I learned that one should approach the liturgy with gentility, humility, and humanity. Liturgy is the work of the people, but it also ought to serve people of God and is always sensitive to context. Liturgy is always pastoral with a small “p”.

We can worship with integrity across styles and contexts. We can debate liturgical practice in good fun, but when it becomes our primary witness, for one another and the people beyond our churches, then it is no longer a diversion, it is a detriment to the work of the church.

Hopefully next Advent we can announce this season an invitation to waiting, longing, love, and incarnation. Because, really, nobody cares about the color of your candles.

photo credit: Caitlin Doe

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