In Advent the emphasis is on the season rather than on feast days. Nonetheless, the calendar remains filled with observances to mark. The first week of the month includes three important fathers of Church doctrine. The first is St. John of Damascus (d. 760), whose teaching still forms the principal base for the catechism used in many Orthodox churches, and whose writing on icons was instrumental in the resolution of the Iconoclastic Controversy at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. Clement of Alexandria (d. 210) was an important early figure in biblical interpretation. Ambrose (d. 397) is remembered as a father of doctrine as the propagator of much prayer. Under the understanding lex orandi, lex credendi (“the law of prayer is the law of faith”), what we pray is an expression of what we believe. This understanding of how doctrine is defined is particularly Anglican. We don’t have a lengthy and detailed catechism, for example, but our prayer book contains many prayers that define what we believe. Ambrose definitely wrote the hymn Veni redemptor gentium (“Come, Redeemer of the nations”), the source for our Advent hymn, Savior of the nations, come (no. 54), as well as ten other hymns in our hymnal. He is the originator of antiphonal chant, in which alternate verses of a psalm or other prayer are chanted back and forth between alternate sides of a monastery choir, or between cantor/choir and congregation. Importantly, this back and forth style of praying featured in the exchange between Ambrose and St. Augustine of Hippo, at the latter’s baptism, which exchange became the prayer Te Deum laudamus (“We Praise Thee, O God,” BCP 52 and 95).
Two apostles are remembered in December: Thomas (on the 21st) and John (on the 27th). Martyrs are St. Stephen (the first martyr or “protomartyr,” 26 Dec.), the Holy Innocents (28 Dec.), and St. Thomas à Becket (29 December). The Feast of the Holy Innocents (which is one of the few feasts not of Our Lord which can be observed on a Sunday) recalls the massacre of all male children under the age of two years, killed in King Herod’s attempt to rid himself of the Christ child (Mtt. 2.16—18). The feast of St. Nicholas of Myra (d. A.D. 346) falls on 6 December, but “rumor has it” that we can expect a visit from the saint following the 10:15 Mass on 2 December! Nicholas is a patron of young children, Russia, sailors, and pawn brokers. The three balls over a pawn shop door recall this patronage, representing the bags of money Nicholas is reputed to have tossed into the windows of girls who were unable to marry for lack of dowries. Gift-giving and children have thus been associated with Nicholas, with the figure “Santa Claus” being a combination deriving from the Dutch practice of gift-giving on 6 December, 19th C. Thomas Nast illustrations of A Christmas Tale, and the very successful 1920’s advertising campaigns of the Coca-Cola Company. A better depiction of the real St. Nicholas, and one testifying to his bravery, can be found in a famous painting by the 19th C. Russian artist, Ilya Repin, found here: http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/saint-who-stopped-execution/ On 8 December we remember the Conception of the Blessèd Virgin Mary, and on 14 December the notable mystic and poet St. John of the Cross (author of “Dark Night of the Soul”).
The Prayer Book and lectionary provide for three different Masses for Christmas, and we will celebrate all three: Christmas I as a vigil service on 24 December (celebrated as a family service), at 4:00 p.m. This service will be especially suitable for young children. Christmas II will be a vigil service on 24 December, at 11:00 p.m., with music beginning at 10:30 p.m. The service will include the choir, brass, and organ music. Christmas III will be celebrated at 9:00 a.m. on Christmas day (said service with hymns).