Lion-like, Advent comes roaring in with its annual debates and decisions. The one we care about these days is "Blue versus Purple"; the one about which don't care much anymore is "Can We Sing Christmas Songs."
The first question, about liturgical color, is meaningless on its surface. What possible difference could it make whether the paraments and stoles and whatnot are the violet customary in the Roman rite or the indigo purportedly found in a few northern rites? The answer, of course, is none; liturgical colors are as utterly adiaphoristic as it is possible to be.
And yet ... Whether with or without precedent, dark blue has been taken up by American churches in the past few decades, and called "the color of hope." This is surely a fair assignment; hope is a virtue of which Advent speaks conspicuously, whether in its lion-weeks or its lamb-weeks. Why should it not have its own color?
On the other hand, consider the role of Advent in the church's year. Historically, it was a late development; as the Christmas-to-Epiphany cycle emerged as a mirror image of Easter -- "Pasch in winter," it is sometimes called -- so eventually Advent was invented as an invernal "St. Martin's Lent." It was, and among the Orthodox its equivalent remains, a fast. It was likewise a time of penitence, of self-scrutiny and confession. Logically, as Christmas shares its color with Easter, while retaining a distinct character, so Advent shared its color with Lent.
It seems possible that, by changing the color of Advent, churches may also change its character. The analogy to Lent is broken, or at least vitiated. The question churches need to ask themselves is whether this is a good thing or a bad one. Some may celebrate a step away from a religion of guilt and gloom -- but others may regret the lost opportunity to offer discipline and self-restraint in the season of endless office parties and shopping binges.
We have swung both ways over the years, but lately we lean toward the latter. A violet Advent seems more deeply countercultural, and therefore more deeply useful.
As for songs, well, how much rhetorical blood has been spilt over the question of whether a few Christmas carols sung in early December will be an offense to Almighty God? Pastors struggle both with parishioners and consciences; music directors seem to divide down the middle, with Dr. Purist Noseintheair snarling at the populist leniency of Ms. Suzie Pedalpumper.
It makes us want to jump up and down shouting, "Hey, guys! You know they're only songs, right?" Songs are just as adiaphoristic as colors -- or for that matter seasons -- and yet for some reason they seem to draw many times the acrimony.
Once upon a time, in our idealistic youth, we sided with Dr. Noseintheair. No matter how the choir begged and the children cried, there would be no Christmas songs before Christmas! Father A. stood like St John the Baptist, fire in his eyes, decrying the generation of liturgical vipers. Frankly, we still prefer to hold Christmas off until Christmas; if nothing else, we like the way it builds suspense, like ketchup slowly working its way down the neck of a bottle. We compare it to such antepaschal customs as fasting, or veiling the crucifix, or omitting the Alleluia.
But here's the thing: Christmas songs are, by and large, about the Incarnation. And the Church is always celebrating the Incarnation, because (with the Resurrection) that's the center of the Church's very being -- the object of every sermon and every sacrament, the sine qua non of Christianity as a religion. To set them aside is, at least arguably, to risk setting aside the center of the faith in favor of its marginalia. We might as well spend Holy Week trying to forget the Resurrection (which, of course, some liturgical practices nearly do).
So if the question is: Can we sing Christmas songs during Advent?, we at the Egg are inclined to answer, with a heavy sigh, Yes, provided you would also sing them in Lent, or in mid-summer. Which, for many of the most beloved hymns, you would, could and maybe even should.