As a pastor I was a bit too idealistic, too ready to do all the correct things to the letter. All of this was to the consternation of my various congregations, who sometimes suffered silently with all my correctness and occasionally railed against me for (what they considered) my quirks. Probably the best example of this was my insistence that we save Christmas carols for Christmas (Dec. 25 – Jan 12) and stick with Advent hymns during Advent (the four weeks prior to Christmas Eve).
Of course it is absolutely American, and so by extension, obviously Christian to start singing Christmas carols the day after Thanksgiving, so my quirky idea to save Christmas carols for Christmas drove everyone nuts, especially Mrs. Musil, who rolled her eyes and harrumphed whenever the subject came up.
While it is absolutely American to sing Christmas carols during Advent instead of Christmas, it is liturgically correct (according to the standards of the contemporary ecumenical consensus and the guidelines of the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship) to save them for the twelve days. … And I was a stickler for liturgically correct!
The amusing thing (at least it’s amusing from the perspective of 5 years on and one state removed from the scene of the crime) is that the correct thing to do in the Presbyterian Church is to be guided by the corporate will. (And let me make clear that I’m not talking about some sort of democratic congregationalism here, I’m rather referring to the utterly fundamental Presbyterian principal of conciliarity.) The early church was guided by the corporate will of the great Councils and that principal was applied to every aspect of Presbyterian life. The congregation was guided by the Session (or Consistory). Congregations did virtually nothing on their own, but were formed into Presbyteries, Synods, and Assemblies, which were made up of representative elders from every congregation or Presbytery. Virtually nothing in the Presbyterian Church is left to the will of an individual; everything requires council because “where two or three are gathered [Christ] is in the midst.”
This concilliar system, as it played out historically in the Presbyterian Church, gave a great deal of authority to local option. Certainly the Book of Order was binding on congregations, but until the last decade or two, the Book of Order was a slim volume, giving great leeway to local congregations and regions to express the one faith with their local flavor.
And my insistence on saving Christmas carols for Christmas was a classic example of bull-headed leadership arbitrarily applying a technically correct idea to a context where it was foreign and therefore inappropriate because it lacked the consensus of the people.
The Orthodox Church is rather different than the Presbyterian Church. While there is certainly a concilliar principle at work within Orthodoxy, it is definitely a hierarchical body where the bishop (and the clergy, speaking on behalf of the bishop) has far more say in local affairs. One of the areas where there is no local option is in the matter of worship. Both the structure and contents of worship are not negotiable. If the bishop says it’s going to be done this way, that’s how it will be done. (Not that this has a lot to do with my story; I’m just observing that things are ordered differently in the Orthodox and Presbyterian communions.)
So, here I am in the liturgically-correct-by-order-of-the-bishop Orthodox Church during the Nativity Fast (what is called Advent in the West). Imagine my surprise when I heard a Christmas hymn during the section of the service where all the “hymns of the day” are sung!? The song I’m talking about is The Kontakion to the Theotokos Prior to Christmas and it goes like this:
Today the virgin cometh, cometh unto the cave, to give birth to the Word who was born before all ages, begotten in a manner that defies description. Rejoice therefore, oh universe, if thou should hear and glorify with the angels and the shepherds. Glorify Him, who by his will shall become a new born babe and who is our God before all ages.”
Granted, the last sentence is future tense. The Word “shall become a newborn babe,” so I suppose one could argue that it is an Advent hymn because in the last sentence it is looking forward. But the theme and content is Christmas all the way. You’ve got the babe born of the virgin, the angels and shepherds glorifying him … This is every bit as much a Christmas hymn as “Once in Royal David’s City” or “The First Nowell.”
So in the end, it turns out the joke was on me. All those years I was trying so hard to be liturgically correct. I think there’s no arguing that no one’s more liturgically correct than the Orthodox, and according to Orthodox standards, it’s okay to sing Christmas carols (well at least this one Christmas Kontakion) during Advent.
Sorry about that Mrs. Musil. Turns out your smarty-pants pastor was wrong. (But you knew that already!) In my defense, I was just doing what they told me in seminary.