Ask the Matriarch this week is all about how we can hang on to Advent in a world that wants us to keep Christmas - and of course, this is the hot topic for clergy in late November. On Sunday evening at St Mary's we will have our Advent Carol service - moving through from Palestrina's Matin Responsary to the great shout that concludes "Lo he comes"..."O Come quickly...Alleluia, Come Lord Come".
We will celebrate our journey from darkness to light, will hear the readings appointed for centuries, together with those great collects that send shivers down the spine as they call us to "cast away the works of darkness".
It will be wonderful, moving and appropriate - but I can almost guarantee that there will be at least one disconcerted family who slips away before the end, appalled to discover that, despite the candlelight, we won't be singing "Away in a Manger" at all...
Because no-one out there "gets" Advent. They may be aware of the name, because of the countdown element of their Advent Calendars - but these tend to major on a daily chocolate and a Disney theme, and even the explicitly Christian ones lead you straight into the Christmas story. Schools are breaking up early too, which means that the first school carol service (which will be well and truly Christmassy) takes place in St Mary's on 11th December - and my first Christmas dinner will be courtesy of the Mothers' Union on this coming Monday 2nd December. Advent, it seems, is a lost cause - and it's dotty to waste the opportunity that Christmas provides to welcome people into the church, to "tell them the stories of Jesus they love to hear"
At Greenbelt 06 FabBishop suggested that it might be wise to make the most of any common ground the church has with the Hallmark calendar of secular feasts - and it doesn't feel in any way helpful to go on saying, in a chill but holy way "Advent is a time of preparation, of pondering the Four Last Things" while outside everyone else is already waxing sentimental over The Little Drummer Boy. We're supposed to be ministering in the world...not tying ourselves in knots because the world doesn't grasp the niceties of the liturgical calendar. On the whole, I'm not prepared to lose a golden opportunity to celebrate God's love -it's lonely up on the moral high ground!
So - do we have to abandon all hope of taking time to breathe, to put our spiritual house in order as we prepare to savour the wonder that is to come? An article in last Friday's Church Times suggested a possible solution - that we move the "waiting/preparing" element of Advent back into November, into the "Kingdom season" which otherwise passes almost un-noticed. I think I might be up for that idea. You might be able to lure people to a study group at this relatively fallow point of the year (That's right -before the Christmas parties start!) - but Advent is, surely, a season for preaching to the converted. Meanwhile, with an eye to mission, one church in our deanery is holding a "crib festival" - an exhibition of some 100 cribs from various sources...another has a Christmas Tree festival....People will pour in to enjoy those, people who would be utterly lost and confused if confronted with the solemnity of Advent.
So let's be content to keep Advent for the "conoisseurs" - our core congregation - but to do everything we can, and more, to make sure that those outside are invited to hearing the message of the angels.