An Advent/Christmas Interview with Bishop Mark Lawrence
In late November 2019, I had an opportunity to chat with Bishop Lawrence about Christmas and Advent. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation – Joy Hunter, Diocesan Communications Director
Bishop, How do you observe Advent?
It’s different now from how I observed it as a parish priest. As a priest I lived through it with a congregation. We’d begin by making Advent wreaths. Sometimes we’d put lights on trees and bushes around the church. We put out the Christmas crèche and each Sunday add one more figurine.
During Advent I’d begin the services saying: “One candle lighted.” I’d look at the crèche, “No baby Jesus in the manger! It’s the First Sunday of Advent! Good morning!” Then the next Sunday it would be: “Two candles lighted. No baby Jesus in the manger. It’s the Second Sunday of Advent.” And so on. Then on Christmas Eve or Day I’d say: “Five candles lighted. Baby Jesus in the manger. Must be Christmas. Merry Christmas!”
Those were things we did as a community. They build the sense that this is a season of expectation. But as a Bishop I’m in a different church every Sunday. So I don’t go through the season with a community. I look forward to getting back to it someday!
What do you think of the secularization of the season, all the commercialism?
I like to call the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas the “Shopmas” season. Santa Claus is everywhere. The lights are sparkling. Christmas trees are aglow. Everything’s out for Christmas. But it’s really focused on and driven by shopping and nostalgia.
Some clergy rage against it, but I actually like Shopmas. I’m nostalgic about it. I love going through the stores hearing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” or “The weather outside is frightful.” I like the songs. I enjoy them.
My problem is right in the middle of that secular, nostalgic season: the church pulls out of the mothballs John the Baptist. He’s raging like a furnace, calling us to repentance. He kind of ruins the whole thing, but he’s there in a good way. He’s kind of the spiritual Scrooge. He works against the secularism of the culture.
So two warring factions?
Advent is filled with a paradox. There’s the paradox of the works of darkness and the armor of light; mortal life and immortality; humility and the glorious majesty; the second coming of Christ in glory and his coming in humility at Christmas. For those who like paradox, it is a glorious season that we don’t want to sweep away too soon with Christmas. The Collect for the First Sunday of Advent encapsulates it well.
The church year always begins with Advent, right? And the lessons focus on the Second Coming of Christ at the close of the age. We begin with the end in mind.
If you know how all of human history ends, you know where to put your weight. You know how to live your life. And the Church says it all ends with the Second Coming of Jesus, his Parousia—the coming of Jesus in glory to restore all things and judge the living and the dead. It’s a brilliant thing the church has done. If we jump too soon to preparing only for Christmas—and Jesus coming among us in great humility—we miss that.
The business world understands this. They could have gotten it from the church year because we begin with the end in mind, then go right into Jesus coming in great humility—which of course lasts for 12 days. With that we’re counter cultural, because the world has already moved on after Christmas day, but we continue on with it for 11 more.
So I’m guessing you don’t do any decorating until Christmas Eve?
Oh, no! Here in Charleston I usually put out greens along the wrought iron fence the first Sunday in Advent. And decorating inside is a long process because we’ve collected all kinds of things over the years. Allison has a whole collection of Santa Claus figurines. I carry down all the boxes from the fourth floor to the second or first floors. I put up the Christmas tree and decorate it, but Allison does all the rest. It’s a big job. It’s part of our ritual.
Will you be using an Advent devotional this year?
I pray Morning Prayer every day, but in Advent I’ll also pick a Christmas or Advent book to read during that month. Last year it was Advent with Evelyn Underhill. The year before Waiting on the Word: A Poem a Day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany by Malcolm Guite. And the year before that, The Meaning is in the Waiting: The Spirit of Advent by Paula Gooder. That’s the usual thing I do.
Allison and I usually watch our favorite Christmas movies like “The Muppets Christmas Carol.”
You’ve got to be kidding me!
No! It’s one of the best Christmas Carol productions. Michael Caine as Scrooge and Kermit the Frog as his clerk. They really keep to the heart of the story and do it well. And there are wonderful songs in it. When the grandkids are here, we watch “Home Alone”, “Polar Express” and “The Santa Clause.” Allison and I will watch “While you were Sleeping” among others.
That’s not a Christmas movie! That’s a rom-com.
It takes place at Christmas! It’s all about the loneliness at Christmas and how important family is at the holidays.
Any Christmas memories from your childhood you’d like to share?
Oh, many, many. I remember when I was a kid, and it started to get cold, I’d lie next to the floor heater behind my father’s lounge chair and figure out odd jobs I could do to earn money to buy presents for my brother and sister and mother and father. I’d rake yards, deliver newspapers, mow lawns, collect bottles. My advent devotion was looking through the Sears catalog for things I wanted for Christmas (though sometimes my mother had an Advent Calendar on the fridge).
And I’d clean out the fireplace because I always liked fires. That’s one thing I miss, there’s no fireplace in the Episcopal Residence.
How is the celebration you grew up with different from the one you and Allison created with your own children?
Clearly the one our kids grew up with was far more focused on the community of the church, decorating the church as well as our house. And our kids growing up always had parishioners around, and were performing in Christmas Pageants, singing in the Jr. Choir or acolyting at Midnight Eucharist or the New Year’s Eve Vigil and Party at the Church.
We might go to church on Christmas morning, and Allison would ask someone, “What are you doing today?” If she’d hear, “Oh, we’re not doing anything” or “We’re alone,” she’d invite the person to our Christmas dinner. That might also happen on Christmas Eve, too. Our kids always grew up with people from the church at our home and family gatherings.
Favorite holiday food?
Do you have any words of advice for new parents on how to celebrate Christmas well?
I would say it’s important to build family traditions—give your children a heritage and rituals but don’t get hyper about them. Build in a rhythm of seasonal expectation and joy. You balance the season of Advent with Christmas. Don’t make Christmas day alone the thrust of everything. There’s a reason why the church has 12 days of Christmas. One day cannot live up to the expectations we put upon it.
What do you look forward to most?
When we lived in Pennsylvania, it was getting a fire going in the fireplace, a cup of coffee and a good book especially on a snowy day. Everything slows down. Everything is quiet. Just enjoying the season. I was also on the board of the local Salvation Army and rang the bell at the kettle.
But now I look forward to our family coming, which as you know is quite large, and having a few days after Christmas to do things with grandkids or our adult children, and the good holiday food. I look forward to the Advent season with all its paradoxes. I look forward to the literature of Advent and Christmas (George MacDonald’s Gifts of the Christ Child, Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, and so many others), the CSO concerts, and the movies of Christmas.
Oh, and as a clergyman I looked forward to a few days off after Christmas and still do. There’s a thousand things to do between Thanksgiving and Christmas when you’re in parish ministry and for your parishioners too. And though I had lay Eucharistic ministers and deacons, I tried to get to our shut-ins between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
What about the services?
I always used to look forward to the Christmas Eve service. It’s one of my favorite services, but it’s complicated. It’s not always an easy sermon to preach. And sometimes I put too much expectation on it. You’re trying to balance all kinds of things and all kinds of expectations. But it can also be just wonderful.
So managing expectations is important?
You have to let each season fit in with what happens that year. If you try to relive everything, you just make yourself frustrated and unhappy trying to make the perfect Christmas. Christmas is rarely perfect. And it’s always going to be different, but you may look back upon it and think, “There was something quite lovely about that year.” You remember January 3, 2018? It snowed in South Carolina right during the Twelve Days of Christmas—what a gift for us in the lowcountry!