When it comes to liturgical seasons, my favorite by far is Advent. I love it for its contemplation and its quiet expectation, sort of like being pregnant. There are times of discomfort, but even some of the discomfort is a reassurance that a new life is coming into the world, and that’s a good thing. Advent has that feeling because, of course, we are expecting the birth of Jesus at Christmas. But Advent makes us wait, makes us think about what we’re getting into once the baby Jesus is here.
One of the things I like most about Advent is the music that I hear. No, I’m not talking about the Christmas carols in the big box stores (and even the little stores) that start playing on December 1st and stop pretty much by midnight on Christmas Eve. By Christmas, I’m tired of carols, although I do love singing them at the proper time. I never hear Advent hymns and carols though, unless I am at church or listening to CDs on my various devices. There’s one that I have just about worn out, and that’s a service of Advent music and lessons from King’s College that I bought years ago and love dearly. The sound of the choir of men and boys, the words of the scriptures leading up to the birth of Jesus, all the sounds echoing off the vaulted arches of a historic place – it’s the most wonderful thing I can think of.
Another thing I love about Advent is Messiah. Many places will wait and present it at Easter, but somehow doing the Christmas section in Advent is like the trailer for a really good movie. It gives us a taste of what’s coming and makes us think of what that birth means.
“On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry” (Winchester New), is one of those hymns that I can’t wait to sing. It’s a song encourages us to look forward to the days of Advent and that tells us so eloquently that the assurance that what the Baptist tells us is true. There is one coming who is greater than John and who will be our “… Our refuge, and our great reward.” It is an exposition of what the coming Messiah will bring to us and what we will joyfully celebrate. After all, Advent is a celebratory season, as well as a penitential one, in its own quiet way. The four Advent candles, one lit each Sunday until finally the Christ candle is set alight on Christmas Eve, and the darkness, while surrounding us physically, is dispelled with the joy and the light and the scents of Christmas.
Another one of my favorites seems like an odd choice for an Advent hymn, and it makes me stop and wonder why it’s included. “Lo, he comes with clouds descending” (Helmsley) is not about the Christmas birth but a return to earth from heaven of the Christ who bears the scars of his violent and painful death on the cross. This hymn is based on Revelation, something we don’t normally associate with Christmas or Advent. It seems to be something more suited to Lent or perhaps the season after Pentecost. But it is kind of a balance to the quiet anticipation to Bethlehem as it makes us think about the road beyond the manger, a road we will walk during Lent, celebrate at Easter, and then look beyond to the Messiah’s return and what it will mean to the earth when it happens. I still love it, and almost wish that we could sing it sometime other than Advent, just because it’s a message that transcends seasons.
Also on my list of favorites is what we call the “O Antiphons,” a series of eight verses begun on December 17 and ending on December 23 or 24th, one verse being sung each day, and each verse giving out a title or an attribute of Jesus, like root of Jesse, wisdom from on high, key of David, etc. It’s chanted in plainsong, a very old liturgical way of singing, that has no harmony but has everything sung in unison. With the unison singing, it’s easy to contemplate the words without distraction because once you learn the melody that’s all it needs. It encourages us to rejoice, and to welcome the coming Messiah. It’s hopeful, and it is simple enough to be remembered throughout not just the Advent season but afterwards. “O come, O come Emmanuel,” the opening phrase of the first verse, is translated from the Veni, Veni, Emmanuel.
So once again it’s time for me to break out my iPod and fulfill my Advent tradition of listening to my wonderful CD from King’s, although I admit I sneak it in a few times during the year simply because it is so lovely. If you have a service lessons and carols for Advent at your church, do go and listen, invite a friend, join the singing (which is a form of prayer), feel the anticipation, and let the world’s cares and fears dissipate for a little while. We need the rest, we need to catch our breaths, and we need the peace. That’s what Advent offers us.