Advent- a time for sober reflection. Or, for joyous celebration. A time when the church commemorates the role of women in the gospel story. Or, virtually ignores women, spending much more time with an Old Testament prophet and a strange desert visionary than with the “mother of God.”
Former United Church of Canada (UCC) moderator the Rev. Gary Paterson sums it up: “Advent…is a strange season in the life of the church.”
Is it a time of joy or a time of penance-or both? Is it possible that a church traditionally dominated by males has created a myopic tradition that largely ignores the female perspective? And are there reasons to suspect that the mainline church’s focus on Advent as distinct from Christmas may be a roadblock to evangelism?
In the beginning
By the sixth century, Christians were celebrating the anticipated coming of Christ. Other traditions followed-the association of each successive Sunday with hope, peace, joy and love and the odd development of the much-misused Advent Calendar, in the 19th century.
Church lectionaries feature four readings for each Sunday of Advent. This year’s readings include four segments from Isaiah, four Psalms, calls from Paul, James and Matthew to prepare for the second coming, two readings about John the Baptist, and the story of Joseph and the angel.
One alternative reading is suggested-the Magnificat, Mary’s Song (Luke 1:46-55), but this optional reading omits the first three words of the passage. Those words are, simply, “And Mary said.” The song is there-the female author is omitted.
Misogyny or mystery?
Does all of this represent an anti-female bias among those who created the lectionary? Opinions vary.
Paterson says, “I think John the Baptist is a helpful voice in Advent…but I only give him one Sunday despite what the Lectionary suggests. And Mary always gets a Sunday…And often Elizabeth gets one, too.”
United Church clergy have more wiggle room in ignoring lectionaries than some other mainline churches. Canon June Hough, rector of the Church of the Ascension (Anglican) in London, Ont., has no doubt there is a problem: “The women are supporting characters. Even at the temple, we have a song of Simeon, and Anna is secondary… A strong patriarchal spirit pervades most of how we interpret Scripture.”
But Canon Wendy Fletcher, principal at Renison College at the University of Waterloo, Ont., doesn’t see a problem. “Of course, women as the child-bearers in our world are at the centre of Advent’s meaning…The third Sunday of Advent, which focuses on Mary-her joy, her willingness to give everything for love-is an appropriate balance to Advent One’s call to turn around….to ‘repent.’ ”
But Bishop Linda Nichols of the Anglican diocese of Huron has some questions: “I think the lectionaries only need one Sunday on John the Baptist-I have not heard anyone explain the double Sunday emphasis.”
Nonetheless, she rejects the suggestion that male decision-makers have de-emphasized the role of women because of “male mystification” around the reality of pregnancy.
But could that be a possible explanation of the perhaps inordinate focus on men in what is essentially a story of a pregnant woman? Current UCC moderator the Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell takes a cautious position: “I suspect that women experience pregnancy and birth as mystery perhaps even more deeply than men do…Wherever pregnancy and birth are major themes, I think mystery and wonder are the only authentic responses we can have, regardless of our gender.
I do think the church is quite afraid of human bodies, and female bodies in particular. So we do tend to ignore or down play the very embodied experience of Mary and Elizabeth. That is a mistake. The incarnation is all about the incredible mystery of God taking on our human flesh. How can we begin to appreciate what that means if we don’t embrace the very physicality of it?”
Hough adds, “This is not Lent. A woman or man doesn’t celebrate only the moment the child is birthed-there is the heartbeat, watching it move, even with adoption, there is the waiting, getting a room ready…a sense of joy.”
The Rev. Nancy Knowles, of Thamesview United Church in Fullarton, Ont., says, “Men have perceived the roles of the women in the Advent/Christmas stories as diminished by comparison to the stories of the male characters. It’s actually rather humorous, especially when one considers that there would be no birth of John the Baptist, birth of Jesus, or even the harried innkeeper, without female characters present…Quite simply, what the female characters bring to the story is…life.”
Fr. Murray Watson, professor of theology, Huron University College in London, Ont., and a Roman Catholic priest, takes exception to the idea that there might be a mistaken, male-dominated focus in Advent. “This represents a misrepresentation of the richness of what Advent means to the Christian church, and relies on stereotypes and caricatures of ‘male thinking’ that are, at best, reductionistic, partial and often incorrect. My own experience has been that excitement and anticipation of something significant on the horizon…is common to men and women equally.”
The Rev. Dawn Hutchings, from Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Newmarket, Ont., and creator of the blog, pastordawn.com, is unequivocal: “I can’t help wondering why the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary…have failed to remember the stories and names of our foremothers? John the Baptist will strut across the stage again…The followers of the RCL will not hear the names of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, or Bathsheba…even Mary is only suggested as an optional replacement for the reading of the Psalm!”
Joy or penance?
Watson thinks that Advent is often a season of misunderstanding. “The official documents of my own Catholic church say that ‘Advent is…a period for devout and joyful expectation.’ “However, I think that this understanding has yet to trickle down to many parishioners, who continue to see Advent as a somewhat grim penitential season.”
Bishop Nichols points to a symbolic change: “Anglicans have shifted from using the colour purple to using royal blue, leaving purple for Lent.”
Fletcher insists, “The sentiment of doom and gloom has no place ever in the Christian worldview-we are creatures made in joy, held in joy and called home in joy. Period.”
Advent and evangelism
All of these hopeful and joyous observations considered, it’s probably important to remember that these are mainly “inside the church” comments-the colour of vestments, the lectionary readings, and so on.
But a question remains: if the birth of Jesus is the second-most-important story in the Christian canon (Nichols reminds us that “Christmas is meaningless without Easter”), is Advent a time for evangelism-and is the church succeeding at it?
Society begins to celebrate “Christmas” shortly after Halloween; meanwhile, churches are debating whether or not Christmas carols should be sung during Advent. Is there a disconnect between the church and society at large-and is this an opportunity lost?
Paterson suggests there are pros and cons: “We are out of step with the cultural activities all around us…and that’s both good and bad. Good, because it presents a counter-cultural voice to the building frenzy of consumerism…The invitation to focus on an inward journey that celebrates life (and yes, pregnancy), and peace and joy and hope and love feel so important. Whether we do that well is another question.”
Watson adds: “I think that the discipline of hopeful waiting is an important aspect of the Christian faith, and so I would be very hesitant for us to take our lead from a largely consumerist society.”
Cantwell agrees: “While it would be popular to jump on that bandwagon, it certainly would not be faithful.”
However, she is perfectly happy to sing Christmas carols during Advent: “I think folks want to sing Christmas carols during Advent, and why the heck not?”
Missing or meeting the mark?
So, is the church missing some key aspects of Advent-opportunities to celebrate the central role of women, to celebrate joy, to carry the gospel out into society?
According to these leaders from several mainline churches, the answer is yes…and no.
There is no general agreement about how well the church is doing at celebrating the women at the centre of the story, but there is entire agreement that they should be celebrated.
When it comes to a choice between somber reflection or joyful celebration, the consensus is, there should be both-but the emphasis should be on joy.
And is the church disconnected from society when it comes to commemorating Advent and Christmas? Again, yes, and no-and this is both good news and bad news. Good, in that the church should present a counter-cultural alternative; bad, in that our perhaps arcane practices may be a barrier to evangelism.
There is total agreement among these mainline church leaders-unlike many evangelical or fundamentalist churches-that Advent is a key part of the church year.
The Rev. Margaret Walker, of St. George’s Anglican Church in New Hamburg, Ont., wonders, “Perhaps the church has a responsibility to bring society back in line with the calendar rather than having agendas set by the marketing department and commercial interests. Christianity was, and should be, counter-cultural; just because our culture does it does not mean that we, Christians, have to do it as well.”
Paul Knowles is a writer, editor and lyricist who lives with his wife, the Rev. Nancy Knowles, in New Hamburg, Ont.