Rubrics and Notes for Celebrating Advent and the Nativity of Our Lord in the Lutheran Congregation


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Traditionally Advent encompasses a spiritual preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ at Christmas. The Western Church sets the season of Advent as beginning on the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas Day, or the Sunday which falls closest to November 30, and lasts through the daytime services of December 24. Christmas begins with the evening services (Vigil) on December 24th and extends through the twelve days of Christmas. The Christmas octave (eight days) includes the Nativity on December 25th; Feast of St. Stephen, the first Martyr on December 26th, the day after Christmas; the Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist on December 27th; and on December 28th, the Feast of the Holy Innocents; and the Festival of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus on January 1st.

ADVENT NOTES

“Behold, your king is coming to you.” Matthew 21:9

Like the Lent, Advent affords the penitent a time of preparation for receiving the fulfillment of the Father’s plan of salvation in the incarnation of His Son, Jesus. Though not as ‘deep’ as the preparatory season of Lent, the Church does exercise some restraint in the Divine Service during Advent.

  • In keeping with the tone of repentance, the Hymn of Praise/Gloria in Excelsis (the angel’s proclamation at the birth of Christ) is omitted from the Divine Service, even on the Sundays in Advent.
  • Depending on local custom, the organ playing may be restrained before and after the service.
  • In many places flowers are not used at the altar.
  • Christmas hymns and carols are not sung until Christmas Eve.

Paraments. The traditional color of Advent, and that which still best fits the historic pericopes of Advent, is purple/violet, which is both the color of repentance and the royal color of the coming King—the two main themes of the One-Year series. When possible, the paraments used in Advent should be different than those used in Lent as the character of the seasons is quite different, for the only symbol common to both is the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God (Pfatteicher).  Since the adoption of Vatican II reforms of the liturgy by much of the Western Church, the use of blue as the color of Advent has been adopted by many Lutheran congregations. In the Lutheran church, Advent blue is a tradition color for Advent among the Swedish Lutheran churches. Blue suggests the color of anticipation and hope, a theme that is seen in the revised readings of the Three-Year series. A congregation should be attentive to use the paraments that carry the theme of the lectionary being used.

The Advent wreath or Advent log is an arrangement of four candles, originally used in home devotions to count the weeks of Advent and symbolize the approach of the Coming One. The traditional Advent wreath featured white candles, but recently the custom of using seasonally colored candles has become common. If the church’s Advent paraments are blue, four blue candles should be used. If the paraments are purple/violet, then three purple/violet candles are used with a rose candle being lit on Gaudete (“Rejoice”), the Third Sunday in Advent in the historic lectionary. When using purple/violet candles, the rose candle is set in the Advent wreath at three o’clock and the candles are then lit from week-to-week starting with the purple candle in the nine o’clock position. With it’s colored candles the Advent wreath is better displayed in the nave than in the chancel.

The use of the Christ Candle in association with the Advent wreath is a liturgical novelty and should be discouraged in the Lutheran congregation. First, the Christ candle is an importation of the idea of the paschal candle and will only likely confuse the Christmas and Easter seasons—let the paschal candle remain associated with Easter and baptisms and funerals. Second, because the Advent wreath belongs to the season of preparation for Christmas, the wreath should no longer be on display, but removed, for services of Christmas allowing the two seasons to be well-defined and distinct.

The decoration of the church during Advent should not be to elaborate. A problem has arisen among many congregations when the cultural celebration of Christmas in the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas is followed. Advent is a season of preparation for something greater. While not as austere as Lent, Advent does call for some restraint in deference to the “tidings of great joy” that will be proclaimed on the Nativity and during the season of Christmas (Maxwell). Candles as decoration should be kept to a minimum. Greenery may be hung but should remain undecorated. Banners may be hung but should be simple in style and decoration in keeping with the mood of the season. If the press of obligations makes it absolutely necessary to erect the tree before the Fourth Sunday in Advent, the lights should not be turned on until after service on the Fourth Sunday to help guide and highlight the transition from Advent to Christmas.

CHRISTMAS NOTES

“The Son of God became the Son of Man so that the sons of man might become the sons of God.” Leo the Great

The Christmas season follows as the fulfillment of the Advent expectation. The long-expected first coming (the Nativity) and birth in Bethlehem is the promise and guarantee of the second and final coming on the Last Day (see propers for the First Sunday in Advent).

Christmas is the celebration of the victory of the True Light born into the world dark in sin. God Himself visit us in our darkness. Heaven and earth are to be renewed by God’s coming (Gerhke).

The Gloria in Excelsis is the preferred Hymn of Praise. The restraint that characterized Advent is lifted. Second only to Easter, Christmas is observed in great joy and with high celebration.

Seasonal flowers and greens may decorate the area around the altar.

The color of Christmas and it’s season is white.

The Advent wreath has been removed. A crib or crèche may be set up in the nave and remains in the church through Epiphany when the Magi join in the adoration of the Christ Child.

Because of the association of light with Christmas, one of the most effective decorations of the church building is the candle. If candelabra were removed during Advent, these are returned. If extra candelabra or candle stands are available these can be placed around the altar. Candles on the window sills or candle stands lining the center aisle of the nave would be fitting.

Much could be said about decorations appropriate for use in the church, and the need to exclude anything that is gaudy or cheap. Also, it should be kept in mind when decoration the church, the altar always remains as the center of attention and focus, and anything that fights for that attention or distracts the focus should not be used.

O Little Town of Bethlehem


But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)

Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for his bed;
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child. (Once in royal David’s City: 1)

During these Christmas days, our thoughts easily turn to consider the little town where mother Mary gave birth to our Savior. The story of that ancient and sacred village engages us still today. Before its gates Jacob buried his beloved Rachel (Genesis 35:16-20). In the fields of Bethlehem pious and faithful Ruth gleaned and gathered her sheaves for her master Boaz (Ruth). On the hillsides above her great-grandson David tended his father’s flocks. The little brook from which the hunted shepherd king so longed to drink in his great thirst (2 Samuel 23:15) still murmurs in the green valley lying at the foot of the town. To the little town of Bethlehem came Joseph and his young wife when great David’s greater Son was born in a lowly cattle shed.

How wonderful are the ways of God! The Ruler of Israel, the everlasting King of mercy, the Lord of peace is not born in some lordly mansion in Athens or in an imperial palace in Rome, but in the poor, little hill village, insignificant Bethlehem. But our God and Father in heaven always does this: A virgin with child; a faithful husband with the proper blood lines; a difficult journey because of a census; choirs of heavenly hosts sing the great Good News to societies lowliest members, the shepherds. “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:51, 52).

King David no longer sat on his throne and his hometown was nearly forgotten in the Judean landscape. Yet the promise of salvation was not forgotten. “But our eyes in truth should see him through his own redeeming love, for that child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heav’n above” (Once in Royal David’s City: 3). And lowly Bethlehem, poor and forgotten Bethlehem, is exalted and becomes again the hometown of Israel’s King, the long-expected King – Jesus Christ!

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
Oh, come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Immanuel! (O Little Town of Bethlehem: 4)

On the Wings of God’s Angels


In Brief

  • Angels were created by God to attend to the work and the person of Jesus Christ.
  • Angels are most often invisible to human eyes.
  • Scripture portrays angelic visitations as stunning occurrences.

The Annuciation, Eustache Le Sueur, 17th century

The angel Gabriel appears to a young girl to tell her she will be the mother of God’s Son. Nine months later the darkness is overcome as the angel choir of heaven announces to shepherds that God’s salvation has come to all mankind in the birth of His Son as a baby in Bethlehem.

The greatest good news to come to all mankind, that God in His mercy was sending Jesus to be the Savior of the world, comes on the wings of God’s angels. This is not the work of cherubic figures with harp and bow, but the majestic work given to God’s mighty messengers.

A messenger is “one who is sent” to speak on behalf of another or “one who is sent” to perform a deed or action on behalf of another. From humanity’s point of view, angels are indeed God’s agents, sent from God’s side to do His will and service among us. Besides describing the function of the angels, the Greek word for messenger becomes the English name for them. The psalm writer speaks of the character and heavenly activity of angels:

Praise the Lord, you His messengers,

you mighty ones who do His bidding,

who obey His word.

Praise the Lord, all His heavenly hosts,

you His servants who do His will. (Psalm 103.20, 21. Also Psalm 148.2)

These messengers are the angels of God, charged with the care of men (Psalm 91). Created at the dawn of time, the angels have witnessed every action of God on mankind’s behalf and every era of our existence. As the true and loyal messengers of God, angels always act as an extension of His will and affection toward humanity.

Angels have no physical form; they are not flesh and blood. The Bible indicates, that angels are most often invisible to human eyes. However, God allows His messengers to appear visibly to aid in their contacts with the human race. When visible, the angel is described as having the appearance of a man. (Read Genesis 18.1-2 and Genesis 19.1-5 as two examples of Scripture’s description of angels.) The visible appearance of angels is so strongly associated with normal human form and appearance that the writer of Hebrews states that they can even be entertained as strangers, “without [anyone] knowing it” (NIV Heb 13.12). And yet, Abraham, Jacob, Daniel, Zechariah, Mary, and others had no problem recognizing God’s angels.

Scripture also portrays angelic visitations as stunning occurrences. In most instances when appearing visibly, angels are so glorious and impressively beautiful as to stun, amaze even terrify those who witness their presence. Read again the magnificent account of the resurrection in Matthew 28. Matthew describes the angel who rolled the stone away from Christ’s tomb as dressed in a white garment that shone like a flash of brilliant lightning. Notice the effect the angel had on those who witnessed him: “And for fear of him the guards trembled and became as dead men” (ESV).

The angels were created by God to attend to the work and the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. On the first Christmas, the infant Jesus was born into the world of man for our redemption. While glorious and remarkable, it is not surprising that an entire heavenly choir of angels appears on that night to sing: “Glory to the newborn king; Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”

The Nativity of Our Lord and Christmastide


The season of Christmas begins with evening prayer on Christmas Eve (December 24) with the first celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord, and ends with midday prayer on January 5.

The evening services of Christmas Eve mark the beginning of the Church’s celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord. The season continues after December 25 over a period traditionally known as the twelve days of Christmas or Christmastide.

This season includes a number of lesser festivals: The festival of St. Stephen, the first martyr, occurs on December 26. St. John, apostle and evangelist, is remembered on December 27. The death of the babies in Bethlehem (Matthew 2) is observed on December 28 as the Festival of the Holy Innocents. The circumcision and naming of Jesus on the eighth day after His birth (Luke 2:21) is celebrated on January 1.

The liturgical color for Christmas and Christmas tide is white. Continue reading