This series encourages your community to observe Advent for up to seven weeks this year, though it can certainly be used for a four-week Advent too. Our materials are organized by date to make it easy for you do what works best for your context: whatever Sunday of Advent you’re on, and no matter how many you’re observing, just use the materials that correspond to the date for that Sunday. Got it? Good.
Now, about that extended Advent…
Maybe you first heard of Advent beginning in early November and lasting for six or seven weeks here at Barn Geese; maybe you’ve seen the idea kicking around at some of the congregations of your acquaintance these past few years; maybe you’ve already introduced it to your congregation and are looking for some extra resources. Whatever your situation, let’s take a few minutes to explore what an extended Advent is, why congregations might choose to do it, and what we Barn Geese have learned about putting it into practice. You know…just in case your worship and music committee asks.
For the Barn Geese, there are two possible alibis for introducing an extended Advent to your congregation: 1) the lectionary and 2) our secular culture.
Alibi 1: “The lectionary made me do it.”
While our Advent imagination is often pointed directly at the little baby Jesus in the Bethlehem manger (and don’t get us wrong, we love that little baby Jesus), the Advent Revised Common Lectionary texts and prayers make clear that we’re remembering Jesus’ first coming in order to prepare ourselves for his second arrival — and to train ourselves to recognize where Christ is already showing up in our world.
If you move backward in the calendar from the traditional First Sunday of Advent through November, you’ll notice that those lectionary texts are also apocalyptic. This is great because they point us toward the Reign of Christ Sunday as a celebration that Christ is coming to reign over all things (spoiler alert: this is very Advent-y). Similar themes in the November and December lectionary texts remind us that the lectionary itself is a circle, not a line; we begin the new church year where we ended the old one, waiting for Christ to come again.
An extended Advent can help your congregation see the continuity between the beginning and the end of the liturgical year and nuance their Advent imagery of Christ as both longed-for child and crucified king.
Alibi 2: “I’m an Advent Grinch for Jesus.”
One Barn Goose first explored a seven-week Advent with her congregation because the people enjoyed decorating their sanctuary for Christmas together at the end of November. Every year, it was a joyful tradition of fellowship and prayer. However, the proliferation of decorations meant that Advent didn’t feel like Advent as much as it felt like an extended Christmas, and the congregation didn’t get the opportunity to engage with the spiritual gifts of Advent: waiting, mindfulness, repentance, reorientation.
We have the full backing of our secular culture when we slip into Christmas early. None of us are surprised when the stores bust out their Christmas decorations the moment Halloween is over or when the carols play on the radio on the day after Thanksgiving. Clergy often face an uphill battle to keep the Chrismons in their tissue paper and the carols in the Christmas section of the hymnal until the appropriate time, and playing the Advent Grinch is hardly conducive to our own spiritual welfare. In some contexts, the Advent Grinch is not the best pastoral approach anyway: sometimes, people just need a little early Christmas joy.
Our Barn Goose introduced her congregation to an extended Advent in order to preserve the beloved congregational tradition of decorating the sanctuary at the end of November while teaching the congregation to experience the gift of Advent waiting. Another Barn Goose followed suit with her own congregation a few years later. Yet another Goose brought the themes of a seven-week Advent to her church while still doing a regular ol’ four-week Advent. Together, we Barn Geese have found that even if our congregations are not ready to try an extended Advent, its themes can provide a sense of continuity from November to December, particularly with complementary liturgical practices to link the Sundays following All Saints to the Sundays of Advent.
TLDR: you can do an extended Advent no matter how many candles are on your Advent wreath. Your congregation will benefit from your attention to the themes of waiting, revealing, and preparation already present in the lectionary.
The North American Academy of Liturgy began promoting an extended Advent a few years ago (“The Advent Project”), reminding us that a longer Advent predates the tradition of a four-week Advent.
In the early centuries of the church, the length of Advent varied; sometimes it was three weeks, sometimes six or seven, sometimes forty days. The forty-day tradition intentionally positioned Advent as a corollary of the Lenten season. (Most of our Orthodox siblings still observe a 40-day period of fasting before Christmas). The longer Advent was sometimes called “St. Martin’s Lent” because it begins with St. Martin’s feast day, which generally falls one week after All Saints.
Therefore, a modern extended Advent begins with the Sunday immediately following All Saints.
In 2021, many mainline Protestant congregations will observe All Saints on Sunday, October 31. However, Lutherans are probably going to be doing Reformation Day, 504 years to the day after Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg church door. Lutherans will probably transfer All Saints to November 7 this year.
If you’re Lutheran and planning on doing an extended Advent in 2021, it will probably begin on November 14, and it will be six weeks long. Everyone else’s extended Advent would begin on November 7 and last seven weeks.
(The extended Advent calendar is not usually this complicated. Thanks, 2021.)
We recommend observing it on November 21 as usual. It’s been our experience that an extended Advent season lends a new and rich context to the Reign of Christ, which already contains themes consonant with Advent.
If seven-week Advent is a mirror of Lent, and if we want to lean into the themes of longing and waiting while building toward Christmas, it makes sense to begin the season with a stripped-down sanctuary. Try using blue paraments only. Put away extra candleholders and banners. Use only what is essential. The challenge of walking through Advent darkness and winter cold helps us connect to what is really important, to the essentials of our faith: font, communion table, the word.
Here are some things we’ve tried:
- Beginning the service with silence, followed by singing a verse of a hymn on the theme of waiting or re-centering. (Barn Goose Emily has used the first verse of the hymn “Come and Find the Quiet Center” in this way, and Victoria’s tried it too. Both found it very effective.)
- Practicing intentional silence in place of other liturgical elements, like the creed.
- Reading poetry about different kinds of waiting.
- Simplifying the order of service.
- Putting out blue paraments early.
- Adjusting the Advent wreath practice to reflect the extension of the season. We have ideas about how to do that.
We have positive takeaways from our experiences introducing congregations to an extended Advent. Some worshipers struggled with the change, and others deeply enjoyed it. One congregation went so far as to do a survey after their experiment with an extended Advent, and responses evenly ran the gamut from “I loved it!” to “I hated it” with most people falling somewhere in the middle ground.
In our congregations, we offered plenty of communication and teaching around the extended Advent to help ease the transition. Of course, this strategy suffered from the same weakness built into all church communications, which is that people need to read the bulletin/newsletter/email/listen to the announcements in order to get the memo. Most of the negative feedback we received after the season centered on people feeling caught by surprise by the practice. The takeaway: communicate early and often, and expect that there will inevitably be some people who are surprised.
One Barn Goose will cherish the memory of a conversation that happened the year after her congregation tried an extended Advent. Her church had decided to revert to a four-week season because they were going through a period of instability and thought the traditional timeline would feel grounding. This Goose was in a committee meeting when the chair asked, “Are we doing seven-week Advent again this year?” When our Goose responded in the negative, his face fell. “Oh,” he said. “I really loved all the candles. Maybe I’ll do it again on my own this year.”
May there be such people with delightful openness to this new-old practice in your congregations, too.