By LCdr the Rev. David Greenwood
Christmas is Christmas and Advent is Advent, right. Advent is the time of expectation, the four Sundays and the accompanying weeks prior to Christmas where we recall the announcements of the coming of a Messiah. Advent is a time of preparation, waiting for the Messiah to arrive. Conversely, Christmastide, with its 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany (6 Jan) celebrates the Word-made-Flesh, the Incarnate-One, the Prince of Peace who has come into the world, God-with-Us, Emmanuel. One period is the before-time and the other is the celebration of the realization of God’s accomplishment for us.
So one would think that Advent and Christmas are celebrated similarly by the faithful congregations of military chapels through out Canada. Chapels after all are suppose to be the sacred space within PMQ communities which create an inviting congregational experience similar in expression to civilian congregations in civilian churches throughout Canada. (My “home” bishop once reminded me that… “We don’t call it the ‘civilian church’… we just call it ‘the church’.”) But in truth nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the needs of the military communities are such that it forces us, as military folks, to celebrate Advent and Christmas very, very differently.
Chapels are tied to the pulse and heartbeat of the military community where they are located. Autumn times are usually extremely busy for military Bases, Formations and Wings. After the busy and active posting season, there is a time for summer vacations, but then the ops tempo ramps up just as the fall school year starts. Exercises are conducted, training peaks, temporary duty business is conducted in far off places, conferences are held, the mid point of the fiscal year (October) causes budgets times lines to be reviewed and next year budgets to be readjusted. Everyone is working full out and well into late November. So when December comes around, units begin to slow down in anticipation of a holiday period called – block leave. Unit Christmas parties or “Holiday” parties are held and sometimes units shut down temporarily for half a day. Last year, our Base Commander put out a directive that, in order to minimize the disruption to base services, all units and sections should hold their Christmas parties simultaneously on the same day — Thursday December first! Poor Advent gets compressed… if not forgotten entirely.
“I work on the chapel planning committee” says Hilda Young of Petawawa, “and it is always fun trying to squeeze everything in before block leave! We decorate the chapel for Christmas on the Saturday before Advent 1.” And so Advent starts… often with a Christmas tree already fully decorated in the Sanctuary, a wreath or electric candles in every chapel window and often a fully staffed Nativity Set on display. Advent 1 opens with a crèche filled with Mary, Joseph, manger, baby, lambs, sheep, shepherd, kings, camels… and sometimes a kneeling Santa!. “Of course the young-people’s Christmas pageant is held on Advent 2 before all the families depart on Christmas leave” says Diane McKeage, Chapel Admin Assistant at 14 Wing,Greenwood. It would seem that Advent-anticipation starts and then ends very swiftly and the culmination of the incarnation is celebrated and over before Advent itself is even complete. By the time Christmas Eve comes around, all the office parties and chapel Noel services are recent history and families and single chapel members are returned on annual leave to be with their families and friends back from where they were recruited. There is always a faithful remnant on Christmas Eve and I twice held very special Christmas Day worship services at the chapel with very few close friends in attendance. Chapel congregations don’t reassemble until mid January, when, if the CLC is willing to “delay” Epiphany, the wee three magi often arrive to bemused looks of “Haven’t we already done this?” or “This is soooo, yesterday!” from kids.
The story of Christmas is certainly not lost in all of this. Certainly there is the Charlie Brown version. And Christmas carols are sung about Christ’s incarnation and God being with us. And, as I said, the pageant will often comprise a nativity tableau. But what is lost is the intentional time of anticipation — the longing. The Reign of Christ is celebrated at the end of the church year… and then there is a whole month before Christmas; when we are suppose to be “the world in silent stillness laying” hoping, waiting, praying to hear the angels singing to announce the news that a Messiah has come. But in our rush we miss that. And I don’t think that we even know that we are missing it. There used to be a commercial on television where ketchup was trying to be poured out. The bottle was shaken and held at an angle while the background music sang, “an-ti-ci-pa-a-tion. The message was that the anticipation was as exciting as the tasting. We miss that excitement and eager expectancy.
The challenge for us as 21st century, busy Anglicans is, “How can we recapture that special Advent sense, that special Advent season in our lives?” Is Christmas a ready-to-wear, off-the-shelf, instant-gratification event… or is there value in sustaining a sense of longing and desire for God’s presence?
Lieutenant Commander the Reverend Canon David Greenwood is the Course Resource Research and Development Officer at the Chaplain School and Centre in Borden. He retires from the Canadian Forces in early 2013.