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Churches enter season of scramble

When Christmas Day fell on a Sunday last year, many churches held services, while others did not. This year, some congregations are making adjustments for another quirk in the liturgical calendar.

Advent, the beginning of the church year and a time of spiritual preparation that precedes Christmas, begins today. This year, the season ends on Christmas Eve.

To handle the convergence, some congregations have changed their schedules, combining either regular Sunday morning worship or Christmas Eve services.

For liturgical congregations, it'll mean a quick change of altar cloths and pastors' vestments from the more subdued colors of Advent to celebratory ones used for Christmas. Many congregations will wait until after the last Advent service to decorate their churches in Christmas finery.

At Our Savior Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg, where the Christmas greens have already been hung and the manger arranged before the altar, the church will have only one morning service on Dec. 24, the Rev. Paul Burtzlaff said.

"We will have a full house that morning,'' Burtzlaff predicted, adding that the combined service will give the congregation a rare opportunity to worship and fellowship together. For Christmas Eve, the colors in the sanctuary will be changed from the royal blue of Advent to white.

A penitential season, Advent is when Scripture readings and religious leaders particularly point to spiritual readiness.

"It's a time of reflection,'' said Burtzlaff. "The entire focus of the season is on the coming or arrival of the king, the joyful anticipation of the return of Christ.''

At St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in Pinellas Park, Advent began two weeks ago, as is the custom for many Orthodox Christians.

The season lasts for six weeks and should be marked by fasting and prayer, said the Rev. Michael Massouh.

A morning service will be held on Dec. 24, followed that evening by vespers, Massouh said. Halfway through that service, the altar linen and vestments will be changed from Advent red to gold for the nativity, the priest said.

King of Peace Metropolitan Community Church also will make a quick change for Christmas Eve. After its morning service, the church's visual arts team will transform the sanctuary. "The altar cloth, Advent wreath table and minister's vestments will change. They may put up different banners for Christmas. They may add more candles around the front,'' the Rev. Lorraine Brock said. "They, of course, will add the manger so that the Christ child will be brought in that night.''

The decorating is practically complete at Our Savior Lutheran, where the congregation held two services Wednesday to mark the beginning of Advent. At its evening service, the congregation sang Advent hymns, listened to Scripture readings and walked past a large nativity scene in front of the altar to hang ornaments on the Christmas tree.

Beginning today, churches and families will mark the Advent season with the lighting of candles in the Advent wreath. Depending on tradition, three of the four candles might be purple and one pink. Others might have three royal blue candles and one pink. A new candle is lit each Sunday leading up to Christmas.

At Lake Seminole Presbyterian Church, a different family will light the Advent candles each week, the Rev. Robert Wierenga said, adding that the candles represent hope, peace, joy and love.

On Christmas Eve, the Christ candle - white and at the center of the Advent wreath - will be lit. The congregation's individual candles will be kindled from the Christ candle, Wierenga said.

"It will be a real special experience,'' he said. "Advent is a time when we prepare ourselves to celebrate the coming of the Christ child. The themes of the four Advent candles, they help us to prepare and build up the anticipation for the very dramatic lighting of the Christ candle."

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