By Barry Howard
In the close-knit rural church of my upbringing, we didn’t observe Advent. Not by that name, anyway. We naively made a huge leap from Thanksgiving to Christmas. The important liturgical dates on our church calendar other than Christmas and Easter were Church Conference after worship service on the first Sunday, Gospel Singing on the fourth Sunday night, Revival during the second full week in August, and Homecoming the last Sunday in July. Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday were not specifically listed.
Our biggest holiday event was the annual Christmas play. Each year, right after Thanksgiving, we started setting the stage for the Christmas program. Tryouts were held for the annual play, the stage was set and decorations (featuring a fresh cut cedar tree wrapped in strands of garland and big colored bulbs) were all put in place as our little sanctuary went through a bit of a seasonal transformation.
Prior to the renovation of 1972, the sanctuary of our country church featured knotty pine paneling, hardwood floors, a pine pulpit, and slat-back pews. The same pews were aligned on the platform to the right and left of the “sacred stand” in rows of three, facing toward the center much like an antiphonal choir, except that the choir sat on the right side and the deacons formed an “amen corner” on the left side. On both the east and west wall, precisely even with the front edge of the platform, there were sturdy eyehooks strategically mounted about 12 feet above the floor. Near the back of the platform, the same style of eyehooks hung on the east and west walls at the same height. The first step in setting the stage was to hang wire cables across the front and rear of the platform — cables similar to those used as guide wires to secure large utility poles.
The second step was to retrieve and install the purple velvet curtains that hung on the wire cables. The rear curtains formed a backdrop, hiding props and concealing characters until their time to enter the stage. The front curtains served as traditional theatrical stage curtains, opening to indicate the beginning of the play and closing between scenes and at the end of the program.
On most years, the Christmas play was a mini-drama based on the episodes in the biblical nativity narrative. Beginning with the appearance of a prophet foretelling the birth of the messiah or perhaps an angel visiting Mary, the play would progress scene by scene until finally, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men, and a menagerie of animals surrounded the manger. For a couple of years, the script involved a more contemporary setting with a plot built around a 20th century family’s saga in re-discovering the meaning of Christmas, but even then, the play always ended with a living Nativity.
Gradually and methodically the stage was set, and finally, after weeks of planning, practice, and preparation, the play would be presented on a Sunday evening to a packed house.
Although at the time, I didn’t know the meaning of Advent, looking back, I think we were sort of observing Advent all along and just didn’t know it. Advent is really a time of setting the stage for Christmas. It’s a season of preparation, culminating in that grand night when we celebrate the birth of Christ.
Today I am convinced more than ever that, as mission-driven Christians who live in a fast-paced, market-driven culture, we need the reflective soulwork of Advent to subvert stealth forces like materialism, busyness and greed — those illusive Grinches who would love to steal away the real message and gifts of the season and replace them with superficial slogans and glamorous counterfeits.
This year in our church, we will set the stage for Christmas by re-visiting the prophets, singing the carols, re-reading the gospels, and lighting the candles that call us to focus on peace, hope, love and joy. Then we will be better equipped to empathize with the anxiety of Mary and Joseph, to feel the labor pains of God, to celebrate the birth of the world’s most pivotal newborn and to hear both the singing of angels and the sobs of Rachel weeping.
If we take the time to set the stage, recounting the biblical stories from Advent to Christmas, we may find that we are more than ready to celebrate the birth of the Messiah, and to follow Christ from the cradle to the cross and beyond.