This week, my facebook feed has been roughly divided evenly among two hot topics in church geekery: pronouncements on the Elf on a Shelf and pronouncements on the eternal war between blue and purple for Advent colors. You will be forgiven if you did not realize these debates were a thing.
As 3 year old Henry pointed out in church on Sunday during my children’s sermon when I asked what was different and he exclaimed, "You should be wearing green!" my parish has mostly noticed that the colors have changed for church. Advent is purple, after such a long season of green since Pentecost last June it's no wonder Henry thought it was Just Wrong. He's not the only one who would say that, though, as the partisans in the Blue vs Purple war are all aflutter. Remember what other season is purple? LENT! Do you immediately think of Lent's solemnity and penitence when you think about Advent? You probably don't. Enter: blue. The tradition of using blue for Advent is a medieval tradition that goes back to a knot of ritual practices from the Salisbury Cathedral in the eleventh century that were distinctly English as opposed to Roman. They were Anglican before Anglicanism was cool but also still really "Catholic," pre Reformation as it was. And so in the late nineteenth/ early twentieth century enjoyed quite a revival, today revealing itself in the use of "Sarum blue" in Advent.
The idea with blue is that it visually shifts the emphasis to expectation, not penitence; Lent is when we thing about amending our lives, not Advent. It reminds us of Mary, too. So why don't we use blue at Christ Church? Because in defining Advent against a too-sin-focused Lent, we miss the boat on both Advent and Lent. It's not that our usual understanding of Advent needs less Lent. It's that our usual understanding of Lent needs more Advent (and, of course, we're not going out to spend a bunch of money on new altar hangings).
Here's the thing. What Lent and Advent both have in common more than penitence is grace: the joining of human and divine at Christmas happens for everyone and for all time. You don't earn it. You don't prove yourself. Nobody's reporting back to tattle. Whether you read the Gospel of Matthew (magi) or Luke (shepherds) the birth is heralded by some pretty sketchy characters. Like the resurrection we prepare for in Lent, it's an act of crushing generosity and love that flattens any of our own pretensions to earning our way in. It's a pure gift. Here's where the elf on the shelf comes in: that sucker is supposed to be watching, reporting back to Santa every night. Elf on the shelf is old-style Ash Wednesday, when we catalogue our failures and focus on all the ways we don't measure up. But we only do that for one day-we don't spend a whole season on it, and it's always grounded in the love of God that makes it even possible for us to withstand that honesty.
As a parent of young children I don't hold anything against anyone for trying to extract some better behavior for a time. I also love the idea of an enchanted world where the humdrum stuff that surrounds us come to life. Have you seen Dinovember? You probably want to give your kids Christmas presents, right? Because it's fun. You don't love them any less when they're behaving badly. I mean, the elf probably makes them happy too, but I just wonder if it could seem a bit less failure oriented? Christmas is about so much more. And so is Advent, and Easter, and Lent. Now I have to go find my coffee cup because I think St Peter climbed out of his icon and hid it again.