We are in the midst of the Advent season, and Christmas is already emerging on the horizon. In stores, in restaurants, on the radio, and in many other places, Christmas music can be heard. I’ve had occasion to reflect on the growing unfamiliarity with Advent music in our culture. Great hymns like O come, O come, Emmanuel, Sleepers, wake, and Savior of the nations, come, are not a part of our contemporary musical culture anymore. In fact, probably the most familiar bit of Advent music in our cultural consciousness would be certain movements of Handel’s Messiah. Even then, those unfamiliar with classical music probably won’t recognize anything except the “Hallelujah Chorus,” which actually isn’t in the Advent/Christmas section at all. This is not just a musical issue – it is an issue with the whole concept of Advent as a season. On the other hand, many people understand the concept of Lent, and it appears in secular culture connected with Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday and fish sandwich specials from fast food chains. People understand, generally, that Lent is a time when some Christians repent and prepare for Holy Week and Easter, but how much does the average person understand about Advent? How much do we understand? Is Advent a time of joyful expectation or a time of repentance? Is it about the mirroring of the Last Judgement with clouds and darkness, or is it more in keeping with the spirit of the Magnificat? The answer to all of the above is, yes.
It is joyful and terrifying all at the same time to ponder the incarnation of God in human flesh, and yet, do we not believe that God dwells within each of us as well? There seems to be a certain dysphoria that we feel when trying to reconcile our humanity with the idea that God is within us – our spiritual selves with our bodies and minds. Yet, in a different way, this is what we celebrate during the Advent season – the mingling of the Divine with humanity. We know how the story goes; Christ is hailed as the messiah and heals the sick and feeds the hungry, and in this way, the interaction between the human and the Divine is at its best. However, on Calvary, we learn exactly how violent and sad this interaction can become. Advent and Christmas are times of great joy, mystery, and awe, but they are also times to ponder what sort of interactions we have had and will have with the Divine in our lives, both in ourselves and with the Divine in others. Will we allow ourselves and others to be healed and fed, or will we crucify ourselves and others? Ultimately, the conflict is resolved in the Resurrection, but I think we can choose which side of the story we will play out in our own lives. It adds so much depth to the experience of Christmas to ponder these things.
Christmas at Christ Church Cathedral is always a special time, and our services will be filled with Christmas carols and anthems old and new. We will celebrate the Incarnation, and we will sing Silent Night by candle light. Will we allow the liturgy and music to speak to us and give us that warm Christmas feeling? I hope so, but I also hope that we will take advantage of the Advent season to really focus on the images of the clouds and darkness, the straight highway, and call of repentance, and the song of Mary. Maybe by thinking on these things, we may more clearly come to terms with the coexistence of the human with the Divine – Emmanuel, God-with-us. It isn’t always pretty or graceful, but it is profoundly real. One of my favorite Advent hymns sums it up very well.
1 Lo! he comes with clouds descending,
once for our salvation slain;
thousand, thousand saints attending
swell the triumph of his train:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign.
2 Every eye shall now behold him,
robed in dreadful majesty;
those who set at nought and sold him,
pierced, and nailed him to the tree,
deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall the true Messiah see.
3 Those dear tokens of his passion
still his dazzling body bears,
cause of endless exultation
to his ransomed worshipers;
with what rapture, with what rapture,
with what rapture,
gaze we on those glorious scars!
4 Yea, amen! let all adore thee,
high on thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory;
claim the kingdom for thine own:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thou shalt reign, and thou alone.
- Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
I hope to see you at our Advent and Christmas services this year! Be sure to arrive by 4:30 p.m. to hear our
Christmas concert before the 5:00 p.m. Festival Eucharist. Christmas Day is a great option if you are interested in avoiding the crowds. Merry Christmas to you and yours from the music ministry of Christ Church Cathedral.
Peace in Christ,
Christopher W. Powell