I really didn’t know what to call this section! I am thinking about it as if it were a book, I guess. So, consider this the Introduction to the whole thing!)
In the Silence
Advent is my favorite time of the church year. It represents so many things – hope, waiting, longing, searching, new beginnings, and anticipation, just to name a few. The music (minor key-fest!), the colors (purple! pink!), and the readings all serve to focus our attention on the spiritual life. Something different is going on here, the church seems to say. Pay attention! Stop and look!
The beginning of a new year, liturgically speaking, starts on the first Sunday of Advent. A new year means a new liturgical cycle. From Advent through Christ the King each year, the church proclaims a series of readings, often moving in a particular direction or painting a theme. With the first reading usually (but not always) taking place in the Old Testament; the Psalm, which is almost always from the book of Psalms; the second reading from a non-Gospel book of the New Testament (Sundays and feast days); and a Gospel reading at every liturgy, there is a lot of ground covered in one year. Add to that the fact that there are three years’ worth of cycles – Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C – and, in 36 months, you have made a pretty good romp through salvation history!
One of the major clues in knowing what cycle we are currently in will be the Gospel reading. Cycle A will usually be from the Gospel of Matthew, Cycle B from the Gospel of Mark, and Cycle C from the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel of John is found sprinkled through different parts of any given year, especially during Holy Week, Christmas, and other feast days. There are always exceptions, but this is the general rule.
Not only does the whole cycle of readings shift on the first Sunday of Advent, catching our attention, but the atmosphere of the liturgy seems to undergo a transformation. The change is almost startling, especially after passing through the last couple of months preceding Advent. I like to think of October and November as one long new year’s eve liturgical celebration.
First, there is October, a true party month with its myriad of Super Saints (St. Therese of Lisieux – Oct. 1; St. Francis of Assisi – Oct. 4; St. Faustina – Oct. 5; St. Pope John XXIII – Oct. 11; St. Teresa of Avila – Oct. 15; St. Ignatius of Antioch – Oct. 17; St. Luke – Oct. 18; Pope St. John Paul II – Oct. 22; and many more! It makes me giddy just thinking about it!). Each day of October feels a bit like an Advent calendar, only this one is full of Saints, and it counts down to my favorite feast day of the year: All Saints Day. The Solemnity of All Saints on November 1 nicely bridges the parade-of-saints that was October with the increasing somberness of the last weeks of the coming church year.
Fresh from hosting a party for saints (All Saints Day – November 1), we turn directly to the more sober occupation of praying for the souls of all those who have died (All Souls Day – November 2). Then we’re off! The days begin to slide by faster and faster as the liturgical readings jump into the eschatological deeps. Eschatology is a fancy church-y word meaning the study of the end of all things, the end times, the second coming of Christ, and Judgment Day. The readings veer from admonishing us to remember that death is near, to the weighty glory of Christ’s second coming and the wonders of the book of Revelations.
The final Sunday of the church year is the glorious Feast of Christ the King. Its proper name is “The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” As a cantor who usually reads the call to worship before mass, I always wish for an echo microphone when I announce this. It seems to demand it. Imagine with me, if you will: “Welcome to our community. Today we celebrate (imagine my voice going all deep and bass and fancy) The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (Universe…Universe…)”. I want to giggle, but I think that is because in our world that tends to prize the casual over the formal, such stark majesty is so foreign as to be uncomfortable.
The feast of Christ the King utterly demands our attention. If we have kept up with the joyful celebration of the saints through the month of October and followed the turn of the season into the contemplation that death is near, our time is short and Christ will come again, then this is its logical end. All this matters because Jesus Christ isn’t just a small-time god with a regional following. He is the utter Lord of the Universe, a universe which finds its end only through Him and with Him and in Him.
My favorite hymn for the feast of Christ the King is the song “When the Lord in Glory Comes”. The text is by Timothy Dudley-Smith, and just the words by themselves are enough. But my favorite setting was written by Bob Moore. For me, it captures the majesty and glory of the occasion with triumphal music. The choir I sang in most recently took this song at a steady, slower pace that highlighted its grand majesty. Chills every time. Although, I heard a recording of this hymn (and I believe it is the official recording) that made it sound more like a period piece of the Renaissance in its worst stereotypes. Don’t listen to that recording!
And – ahem – I’d tell you to come listen to my choir do it justice, but my (now former) parish decided it doesn’t need a choir anymore and dismissed us all without mercy. But that’s a story for another day.
But, I CAN give you the words, which are worth meditating on (especially that 3rd verse! Chills, I tell you!):
“When the Lord in Glory Comes”
words by Timothy Dudley-Smith, tune by Bob Moore
published by GIA Publishing, 1993
- When the Lord in glory comes
not the trumpets, not the drums,
not the anthem, not the psalm,
not the thunder, not the calm,
not the shout to heaven raise,
not the chorus, not the praise,
not the silences sublime,
not the sounds of space and time,
but his voice when he appears
shall be music to my ears,
but his voice when he appears
shall be music to my ears.
2. When the Lord is seen again
not the glories of his reign,
not the lightnings through the storm,
not the radiance of his form,
not his pomp and pow’r alone,
not the splendors of his throne,
not his robe and diadem,
not the gold and not the gems,
but his face upon my sight
shall be darkness into light,
but his face upon my sight
shall be darkness into light.
3. When the Lord to human eyes
shall behold our narrow skies,
not the child of humble birth,
not the carpenter of earth,
not the man by all denied,
not the victim crucified,
but the God who died to save,
but the victor of the grave,
he it is to whom I fall,
Jesus Christ my all in all,
he it is to whom I fall,
Jesus Christ my all in all.
The solemnity of Christ the King is bold. It is trumpets ringing a fanfare. It is pomp and circumstance. It is greatness and splendor. Like Moses before the burning bush and Peter at the Transfiguration, we fall on our faces at even the glimpse of glory we get on this feast day. It is, in a word, awesome.
What can possibly follow such a liturgical statement? As the ringing trumpets announcing the coming of King fade away, we are left with silence. The quiet of a cold dawn. The stillness of expectation. Advent.
As I said earlier, this is my very favorite season of the church year. It is so full of promise, of expectation. From the pomp and majesty of the preceding Sunday, we seem to suddenly find ourselves in the quiet. The music is subdued, often in a minor key; the Kyrie is usually sung; the Gloria is conspicuously absent; and the Advent wreath has made its appearance, sending forth a green, spicy fragrance throughout the sanctuary.
Of course, feeling ourselves surrounded by Advent at church can seem a very different thing than feeling the presence of Advent in our homes and in our daily lives. While we are always called to be people of prayer, and our families are domestic churches, our homes and our hearts are also usually called in – seemingly – other directions.
Soccer practice, bill paying, dinner to get on the table, trying not to be late for work, traffic jams, burst pipes, and a myriad of other things crowd our minds and hearts. Many families find October to be a very busy month. And although there are three or more weeks between Halloween and Thanksgiving, it can seem a blink of an eye. All that means we often find ourselves unprepared for that first purple candle of Advent. (Sometimes, literally! How many times have I scrambled to find candles for the Advent wreath after Advent has begun?)
2020 has not been a great year for a very many people. But one advantage of a year with less obligations is a greater opportunity to prepare for and participate in this lovely season. When we enter Advent fully, Christmas is much more the richer.
So, I invite you to join me in the season of Advent this year. Let’s journey together through the readings and customs. Let’s deliberately make time and space in our days for prayer and thought.
Let us enter the silence.