ADVENT: BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS
Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year; in the Christian calendar, each year finds a new start on the First Sunday of Advent. As structured in Roman Catholic practice today, the season begins with a focus on the end of time itself, then it takes us to a specific time when John the Baptist was preaching that end—the coming of God’s reign and the arrival of the messiah who would introduce that reign. Finally, it directs us to what is, from a Christian perspective, the hinge of all history: the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph, son of God (see Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass, 93).
Our current season, therefore, serves as a bridge between the two celebrations of Christ’s coming—his coming in time, celebrated in the Christmas Season, and his return at the end of time, celebrated especially at the end of the liturgical year, from about the Solemnity of All Saints and especially on the Solemnity of Christ the King. So even though Advent comes before Christmas in the calendar and is usually thought of simply as preparatory to Christmas, it is not merely a pre-Christmas season. In fact, Advent is a bridge that connects our celebrations of Christ’s two comings: a reminder that the fulfillment of Christ’s reign that we anticipate is rooted in the historical fact of the incarnation. The readings and other texts reflect the bridge character of this season and so should our music.
THE MUSIC OF ADVENT
The music of Advent stands in marked contrast to the music of the television specials, school programs, and community concerts that dominate this time of the year. The music of Advent, like the Scriptures proclaimed in this season, evokes a rather different variety of images and feelings: judgment, longing, repentance, hopefulness, and expectant joy. Here are some suggestions for preparing the music of Advent.
Keep It Simple. Use simple settings of the acclamations and other unchanging parts of the Mass.Consider using simple—perhaps chanted and/or unaccompanied—musical settings of the Kyrie, Alleluia, Sanctus, Mystery of Faith (memorial acclamation), Great Amen, and Agnus Dei. Simple and direct music for these texts can help the community enter more deeply into a spirit of preparation and waiting.
Keep It Familiar. Choose familiar melodies with strong texts that express the various themes of Advent, especially for the entrance and Communion processions.Choose a few songs that can be used on more than one Sunday and that can be sung year after year. Nothing says Advent more than the tune of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The words too, although drawn from texts intended for evening prayer in late Advent, nonetheless express themes that permeate the entire Advent Season. Because this hymn has many stanzas, different verses could be selected for different Sundays. Some other songs to consider include “My Soul in Stillness Waits” (especially on the First Sunday of Advent); “On Jordan’s Bank” (especially on the Second and Third Sundays of Advent); “Christ, Be Our Light”; and “Conditor alme siderum” (“Creator of the Stars of Night” or “O Lord of Light”).Advent is remarkably short: Choose wisely!
Keep the Introduction. Prepare a sung introductory rite that can be used throughout the season. In conjunction with the presider and parish planning team, prepare an introductory rite that evokes a spirit of simplicity. Presiders might restrict the opening invitation to one or at most two simple and direct sentences with a longer than usual pause for silence. Consider preparing a simple setting of the act of penitence (form C), with the deacon, cantor, or choir singing the invocations, followed by a sung collect. The Book of Blessings calls for the Advent wreath to be blessed after the homily on the First Sunday of Advent then to be lit before Mass begins on subsequent Sundays. If the Advent wreath will be lit during the liturgy, it should be done simply. The sense of expectation and preparation is heightened by a simpler than usual entrance rite.
Keep It Moving. Plan music for the season with an awareness of the season’s movement. Advent begins with a focus on the final coming of Christ, continues with a proclamation of his presence among us now, and concludes with a remembrance of his coming in history. Some texts are suitable for one or two Sundays but not for others; for example, “Wake, Awake”on the First Sunday and “On Jordan’s Bank” on the Second and Third Sundays. Using the responsorial psalm appointed for each Sunday also helps the community to enter into the movement of the season.
Keep It Advent. Let Advent be Advent and Christmas be Christmas! Advent is a season of preparation for Christmas. We should no more think of singing Christmas carols or having Christmas concerts and programs during Advent than we would think of singing Easter hymns and having Easter concerts during Lent. Why not schedule Advent Lessons and Carols in early December, then Christmas Lessons and Carols on one of the Sundays after Christmas?
The repertoire of liturgical music for Advent is rich and extensive. Careful, thoughtful choices can help our communities to enter into its spirit in the midst of sounds that summon them not to bypass this important time of preparation.
(This introduction has been excerpted from Singing the Year of Grace: A Pastoral Music Resource [NPM Publications, 2009].)
NOTE: For the list of abbreviations for the various hymnals, song books, and publishers, see “Key to the Music Suggestions.”