By Benjamin Kolodziej, Organist and Choirmaster
Although Advent is the first season in the liturgical calendar, the Church did not incorporate this season until at least the fourth century. The Paschal season, culminating in Easter, had been the central observance of the Early Church, along with its 40 days of preparation which we now call Lent. As the Western Church developed and Christmas became an increasingly important liturgical holiday, a 40-day period of preparation (not including Sundays), beginning on 11 November, the Feast Day of St Martin of Tours, was adopted in some places and gradually found currency across the West. Like Lent, the season of Advent was intended as a time of preparation and fasting. Here at St John’s, we accentuate the Advent season in a number of unique ways. In Advent, as in Lent, the church utilizes penitentially-purple paraments, a color of royalty in the ancient world. The liturgy also evidences some changes. The Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments, replace what is normally the processional hymn. As in Lent, the Gloria is properly omitted from the liturgy during Advent, only triumphantly to reappear at Christmas, when we can once again express with the angels “Glory to God in the highest!”
Although this year will be different as congregational singing is not permitted, I still encourage you to ponder some of the great hymns of Advent for your own devotions, keeping in mind that the spiritual discipline of Advent is very much akin to the spiritual discipline of Lent. Here are only a few:
“Savior of the Nations, Come” (Hymnal 1982, 54): Assigned for the First Sunday of Advent, this hymn from Ambrose of Milan in the fourth century was translated by Martin Luther in the sixteenth century. It is a prayer to Christ to “make here your home.” Ambrose here ponders Christ’s incarnation: “Wondrous birth! Oh, wondrous Child of the Virgin undefiled! Mighty God and Mary’s son, eager now his race to run!”
“Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending” (57 and 58): This hymn of Charles Wesley amplifies the eschatological nature of Advent. (“Eschatology” simply means “end times.”) As we contemplate the historical birth of Christ, we also consider simultaneously his own returning on the Last Day, in which we shall see Christ, “once for our salvation slain; thousand thousand saints attending swell the triumph of his train: Alleluia! Christ the Lord returns to reign.” Advent is not simply about the past, but about the future.
“Sleepers Wake! A Voice Astounds Us” (61 and 62): Phillip Nicolai only wrote two hymns, of which this was written during the plague year of 1598, in which thousands died in his town, Nicolai burying almost 200 in one week. A paraphrase of the Parable of the Ten Maidens, in which half are prepared for the return of the bridegroom and half are found sleeping. This hymn reminds us of the importance of maintaining spiritual discipline, that we may be prepared for the “most worthy Lord, God’s Son, Incarnate Word, Alleluia! We follow all and heed your call to come into the banquet hall.”
“Prepare the Way, O Zion” (65): A sprightly, dance-like tune conveys this text which encourages us that “Christ is drawing near! Let every hill and valley a level way appear. Greet One who comes in glory, foretold in sacred story.” This hymn echoes Isaiah 40: 3, “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” The prophets had foretold Christ’s coming centuries before, John the Baptist heralding the Messiah one final time before Christ’s arrival. Our Advent discipline hearkens back into time as it concomitantly contemplates the future.
Advent need not be austere to be disciplined. The joy of Christmas should permeate the entire season. In fact, the Third Sunday of Advent is known as “Gaudete” Sunday, as the introit for the day begins Gaudete in Domine semper, or “Rejoice in the Lord always.” I’d encourage you to ponder the scripture readings proffered at the daily morning prayer services and on Sunday morning. Meditate on the homilies provided on each occasion. Read and sing Advent hymns at home. If you need a Hymnal 1982, I have a number of surplus copies I can give to you, just email me. May your Advent journey be blessed!