Liturgical Calendar Conundrums - What to Do When Advent 4 and Christmas Eve Are the Same Day?

September 06, 2023
Open Agenda book

For Advent-Christmas 2023, I was responsible for preparing the Weekly Services (formerly Sunday by Sunday) for Epiphany Day, Baptism of Christ, and the second and third Sundays after Epiphany. Every time we approach this point in our annual cycle, the calendar presents us with a series of choices to make, since neither Christmas Day nor Epiphany falls on a Sunday most years. While Christmas undoubtedly will be observed with services on Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day, regardless of the day of the week, relatively few congregations in our tradition gather for midweek worship on Epiphany. The Sunday immediately following Christmas Day often finds ministry personnel away on vacation and comparatively few worshippers in attendance. Add to all of that the fact that this year, the fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve fall on the same calendar date, and you have a whole lot of calendar conundrums to navigate.

What is a worship planner to do? When do we celebrate which observances? Can we make all of them “fit”? There is not necessarily a single set of right answers, but here are some things to keep in mind as you and your community of faith make plans.

First, let me address a misconception I’ve occasionally heard regarding Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve services are the first services of the Season of Christmas, not the last services of the Season of Advent. In Christian liturgical practice, we’ve inherited the Jewish notion of the new day beginning at sundown—“And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Genesis 1:5). If you consult the official versions of the Revised Common Lectionary, you will note that there is a single liturgical observance titled “The Nativity of the Lord,” with three sets of propers (the specific texts appointed for the day) offering selections for Christmas Eve, Christmas Dawn, and Christmas Day. So let us put to rest any conception that at a Christmas Eve worship service, we’re “still waiting”—no, in fact, the great feast day of the incarnation has arrived!

That said, in a year like this when December 24 also happens to be the fourth Sunday of Advent, many congregations will wonder how to handle worship. One approach would be to observe the fourth Sunday of Advent on Sunday morning and Christmas Eve services in the evening. This is the most conventional answer, matching the intentions of the lectionary, and it is the one I have followed in the past. Worshippers attending morning worship on December 24 may expect it to be Christmas already, and, at the very least, the appointed gospel reading of the Annunciation will not feel out of place. In many communities of faith, though, the understandable question arises of whether enough worshippers will show up for two different services on the same day. If that feels like too much in your context, the likeliest solution is to cancel the morning service, omitting the fourth Sunday of Advent observance. Of course, our Presbyterian and Congregationalist ancestors would have been aghast at sidelining worship “for the Lord’s Day” in favour of an appointed feast day, but all but the sternest of Puritans have now overcome that hang-up. The Annunciation story could be included among the readings at a Christmas Eve service, especially if all or part of the service takes a lessons-and-carols format. I would not suggest, however, trying to blend Advent observances into the Christmas Eve services because of omitting morning worship—let Christmas Eve be Christmas.

Another conundrum arises as we move forward to the Sunday after Christmas, this year falling on December 31. The lectionary considers this the First Sunday after Christmas, and as always includes a story from Jesus’ childhood in the gospel lection—this year, it’s the rich story of the presentation at the temple, featuring Simeon and Anna. The challenge, however, is whether this Sunday should be observed as Epiphany, since January 6 falls on a Saturday. The higher church traditions list Epiphany as a “principal feast,” a not-to-be-missed observance that trumps other things in the calendar. Traditionally, if you are not gathering for worship on January 6 itself, Epiphany gets observed on the Sunday preceding, since the Sunday following is always Baptism of Christ Sunday. The Anglican Church of Canada is explicit about this in the Book of Alternative Services.

There are other options, of course, about when to celebrate Epiphany, although none of them are in sync with the lectionary and wider ecumenical tradition. Epiphany could be transferred to January 7, but that leaves the question of what to do about the Baptism of Jesus. It could be omitted from Sunday observance to get back on track with the lectionary by the second Sunday after Epiphany. Alternatively, it could be pushed later, to January 14, and omitting either the second or third Sunday after Epiphany. The gospel readings for these two Sundays may feel repetitive anyway, with both focused on Jesus’ calling some of his first disciples. If one goes this route, I’d suggest keeping the second Sunday after Epiphany’s gospel reading featuring Philip and Nathaniel, since it is so different from the other accounts of Jesus’ early calls. Then skip the gospel for the third Sunday after Epiphany, given its marked similarity to the parallel story we just heard from Matthew in early 2023. And still yet one more option would be to omit Epiphany itself, since the readings are identical in all three years of the lectionary and the magi and star show up in so many of our harmonized pageants and carols.

Whatever your path through this series of calendar conundrums, trust that the Spirit who intercedes for us in sighs too deep for words will guide you into what will be right for your context. God will receive your worship and that of your community of faith regardless of the date on the calendar.

Matt Emery, Cloverdale U.C., Surrey, B.C.