Advent – hold the Christmas carols

Advent 1st post 2015It’s Advent, the beginning of the liturgical year, penitential and contemplative in tone as befits preparation for a great feast. It’s a blessed relief from any number of things. I enter it this year sick at heart due to some recent events, ready for a time of prayer and quiet and humility and renewal.

Keep that elf doll away from me. Throw a curtain around that poinsettia display for a few more weeks. And in regretful (some will say regrettable) defiance of my bishop’s directive, I am fleeing my parish church for the duration in order to avoid Christmas carols at every Advent Sunday Mass.

Yes, carols. He used the plural and I assume that means more than one. It’s not as though Bishop Libasci is ordering the choirs to sing “Holly Jolly Christmas.” Nevertheless, I am not on board. I need Advent for the next not-quite-four weeks, not Christmas Lite. Carols at the kids’ concerts or at the store are one thing. Carols during an Advent liturgy are another.

The Mass is the Mass, and my feelings about the music are irrelevant to that. (We liturgical music critics can be insufferable.) My reaction to the bishop’s directive, though, isn’t a matter of mere distaste. I fear we’re diluting Advent and thereby losing something important.

I’ve worked retail, and I remember how we depended on November and December sales. Santa-shaped chocolates on the shelf and “The Little Drummer Boy” on the speakers put people into the shopping mood, so by golly we had the Santa chocolates on display and the music playing by Thanksgiving. We worked long hours. Our paychecks and material support for our families depended on that.

Wanna know what Christmas Eve is like for a retail worker after the store closes? There’s a lot of sleep involved – unless there are kids to be settled. Mass the next day, in all its glory and joy and beauty, is something to be gotten through.

I learned in those days to treasure and crave Advent. My attention to the Advent liturgies was renewed and sharpened. I hadn’t realized how much I had always taken the season for granted. The Old Testament prophecies, the old plainsong chant we now know as O Come O Come Emmanuel (however far from plainsong it’s been dragged by contemporary arrangements), John the Baptist’s blunt call to repentance: all became balm to my spirit when I realized I had to seek out and intentionally participate in Advent rather than just let it happen somewhere in the background. The beauty of the Incarnation, contra my bishop’s concern as expressed in his directive, wasn’t dulled by such preparation. Quite the opposite, in fact.

I mean no disrespect to Bishop Libasci, who has gone out on a limb as a Catholic leader in this very secular state of ours to advocate for refugees and defend religious liberty. The other aspects of his directive make sense to me, especially in view of the coming formal opening of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Christmas carols during Advent liturgies, though, affect me like physical blows. I’ve heard them before, albeit by the choice of music ministers rather than directives from the Diocese. However scriptural the lyrics, they don’t fit Advent any more than Easter songs would fit into Lent.  The carols’ ill timing evokes for me the malls and commercials and movies that hijack them before Thanksgiving.

I guess I’ll be crossing the state line for a few Sundays, although it’ll be odd not to be amid familiar faces. What’s going on at the altar will be familiar enough.