At saint benedict’s table, we’re big on the season of Advent. That’s partly my doing, as Advent is the season I most treasure, but I’m far from the only person in our community who has come to love the season. We take care to emphasize the themes of expectation, preparedness, and watchfulness, steadily reminding ourselves that while this season has the birth of Jesus in view, its deeper call is that we be open to the promised culmination of all of time and history in Christ’s second Advent. We make books of daily Advent devotions available for personal use and encourage people to introduce an Advent wreath to their homes. When the crèche first appears only the animals and an empty manger inhabit it, with Mary and Joseph arriving on Advent Four and the baby and shepherds on Christmas Eve, when we finally bust out the Christmas carols. More than anything, it is a season in which we invite our people to slow down, breathe, and simply “be” with open hands and hearts at a time of the year when the rest of our culture is telling us all to ramp up, shop for those perfect gifts, spend, attend parties, be of good cheer, and then spend some more.
Yes, we’re big on Advent at saint benedict’s table, and looking over our vestry book you can see that reflected in the solid attendance at worship over those four Sundays. Still, those numbers are nothing compared to Christmas Eve, when suddenly our Advent attendance more than doubles, with well over 300 people filling the church to capacity. Not only that, but a good number of those people who have so embraced Advent with us are actually not present on Christmas Eve. Many of the university students who attend saint benedict’s table will have gone home for the Christmas break, others have traditions of going to Christmas Eve services at their family’s home church, and a number of people are inevitably travelling over the season. Of course, a good number of saint ben’s people will be joined at our Christmas Eve service by their families or friends, but that hardly accounts for those jam packed pews.
It can be tempting to think, “Oh, wouldn’t it be good if all of these people came all of the time?” Maybe that’s not the worst thought to have, or at least not so long as that message isn’t subtly –or not so subtly – communicated to those visitors. Even a statement as simple as “It is nice to see so many visitors here with us tonight” can easily come across as having the mildly shaming subtext of, “and you know we’re here every Sunday of the year, right?”
Simply put, the visitors who join us on Christmas Eve should not be seen as potential members or resented as occasional, seasonal culture-Christians, but rather welcomed as guests. As St. Benedict famously wrote in Chapter 53 of his Rule, “Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ, because He will say: ‘I was a stranger and you took Me in’ (Matthew 25:35),” and when better to remember that than on the night we celebrate Christ’s birth? In Luke’s account, the doors in Bethlehem are closed to Mary and Joseph, and so they have to resort to sharing quarters with the animals as they await the baby’s birth. Surely part of the challenge to people who dare to call ourselves followers of Christ is to be sure that our doors are well and truly open on that night, both literally and metaphorically.
With all of that in view, I seriously question the wisdom of passing a collection plate on Christmas Eve. I am aware that in writing this, I have just caused the hearts of many a treasurer and church warden to skip a beat, yet I do not think that we want to look at our guests as being a source of year-end income, even if we struggle to balance the books. “But some people really want to make a donation,” you might reply, and I don’t argue with that. Put out an offering basket or two at the back of the church and include a note in the bulletin welcoming any who wish to make a donation to do so using the envelopes provided beside the baskets. Your own regular congregation should have no difficulty making the switch, and it will save your guests – guests– from feeling that they must scrounge in their purses and pockets for the bit of cash they assume is expected of them, all the while singing one of the carols that probably brought them there in the first place.
Part of the reason I so love the season of Advent is that it puts Christmas – not just Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but the whole of the twelve days – into its proper perspective. After its quieter, watchful, even somewhat sombre opening Sundays, the light begins to draw closer as we tell of the visit of the angel to Mary or to Joseph. We can feel the anticipation building as we begin to all but taste the festal season that arrives at just the darkest time of the year. Those of us who, week by week, walk through Advent are made ready for the Christmas feast, hearts all but bursting as we hear the opening chords of the first carol of the evening. And isn’t that kind of joy simply ripe for the sharing with our guests?
Jamie Howison is one of the priests at saint benedict’s table, where for 15 years he has helped to cultivate a congregational love of both Advent and Christmastide.