Christmas Eve was my favorite worship experience during childhood. My family’s church had an 11:00 p.m. service on Christmas Eve. The service ended at midnight with Silent Night sung by candlelight, often with the only non-candlelight source illuminating a stand-in Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus on a platform above the baptistery. This image imprinted in my mind, and I long for this kind of worship experience every Christmas season. Every time I sing “Joy to the World” or “What Child Is This” during Advent, my soul longs for the culmination of this season of hope and longing.
I used to be an Advent purist. In worship planning, I used to withhold the traditional Christmas carols until the church’s Christmas season began on December 24th. I planned beautiful services with hymns of longing, biblical texts of prophecy, and the recounting of the New Testament events leading up to the Christmas drama.
Advent is counter-cultural – or at least counter to a consumerist culture! Delayed gratification is a difficult spiritual discipline in a world of immediacy. I still prefer to hold back that pure, unadulterated joy until the culmination of the season at Christmas Eve. However, songs of Christmas can accent the yearning of Advent when a longing for fulfillment underlies the celebration. We live with the knowledge of Old Testament prophetic fulfillment in Jesus Christ but also with the anticipation of re-creation and final redemption for the world. We know Jesus, yet we wait for true peace on Earth.
Waiting doesn’t need to be somber. Waiting is reflective, yes. But, we sing with Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. We center our Advent worship on these four ideals with the undercurrent of a celebration to come!
Tracie Jernigan is Lecturer in Worship Studies at Yellowstone Theological Institute. A prolific composer and keyboard performer on piano and organ, she is also an ordained minister.