Starting a new liturgical year
We are hurtling towards Advent at quite a scary speed at the moment, and I want to seize the moment to take a look at the psalms and readings for it. We will be leaving Year B of the Liturgical Cycle after the great feast of Christ the King, and moving into Year C. Year B is Mark’s year, with all the stories and ‘immediately’ narratives; Year C is Luke, with the emphasis on the birth story and all the insider information which Mary herself is supposed to have passed on to Luke, according to tradition, so surely that will affect the Advent narrative..
Last Sunday of the Church’s year : Christ the King
The Church’s year ends always on a high note, with the feast of Christ the King. This is a relatively modern feast, instituted by Pius XI in 1925, and it’s always the thirtyfourth Sunday in Ordinary Time because the numbers are eased if necessary by changing the numbered Sundays after Trinity Sunday, so that the sum always works out. It has a great psalm, and my recorder player gets to pretend that he is a trumpet for the duration (if you listen with the ear of faith). We used to call it just Christ the King, but apparently this extended title ‘King of the Universe’ has always been there, although I think the simpler title has more heft.
First Readings in Advent are always prophets
Advent in Years A and B starts with different parts of Isaiah, and stays with him for all four weeks; but in Year C we have a different prophet every week, moving across centuries as we go. We start with Jeremiah, move on to Baruch (exciting little frisson there, as Baruch is one of the books of the Bible that Catholics have and some other Christians, including the Anglicans, class as Apocrypha, like Ruth), then Zephaniah, and finally Micah. Second readings are all St Paul, but to different groups of early Christians, and all the Gospels are from Luke.
First Sunday of Advent C
Advent C starts with a rush of excitement. The Collect asks God to give us ‘the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ’ and the momentum is maintained in the First Reading, where Jeremiah speaks in God’s name, not only with force and authority, but also with intimacy and commitment : ‘See the days are coming – it is the Lord who speaks – when I am going to fulfil the promise I made […] I shall make a virtuous Branch grow for David […] Judah shall be saved’ (Jeremiah 33:14f). He insists on the timing ‘in those days and at that time’ which keeps repeating in this short reading, and ends by naming the new city like a clarion call ‘The Lord-our-integrity’.
Psalm 24/25, walking with God
This is followed by Psalm 24/25, one of the classic psalms about God’s Law and walking in his ways. It’s a psalm that comes up quite often, at different seasons of the Church’s year, with different Responses designed to focus our attention on some particular aspect. ‘Teach me your ways’, ‘Remember your mercy, O Lord’; but this Response is one of the best, gentle but thought-provoking, and I tried to set it so that the line opens up as you sing it : ‘To you, O Lord, I lift my soul’. Here we are, embarking on our Advent journey. We have the promise; we know the way we should be going; now we set out.
The Second Reading is Paul to the Thessalonians, an outpouring of love and encouragement, looking forward to the Lord’s coming (again), almost like a blessing for us all at the start of the journey. The Alleluia verse is taken from Psalm 84/85, and is just a general prayer for help. The emphasis so far has been on the immediacy of what is going to happen, with reassurance that God is in charge and knows what he is doing. The joy is just around the corner.
The Gospel : stay awake and be afraid
The Gospel is more frightening, because Jesus starts by warning the disciples of the terrifying signs there will be before that event. It is from late in Luke’s gospel, Chapter 21; Jesus’ brief adult life before the Passover which leads into the Passion. He wants to warn them that they need to stay watchful, as no one knows when these apocalyptic times will come, and there will be plenty to be frightened of; but (he says) when these things do happen, take courage, because it means your liberation is very near. Frightening but encouraging. We are already a long way from the reassurance of Psalm 24/25. You may experience a slight feeling of déjà vu, as we had exactly the same reading, but Mark’s version, in the 33rd Week, i.e. the one before Christ the King. Luke’s version is just slightly darker and more minatory, but the essential message is the same : stay awake, watch out.
Second Sunday of Advent C
Now we have a First Reading from Baruch, thought to be Jeremiah’s scribe, but in the Catholic Bible allowed to have a Book all of his own. He addresses Jerusalem directly, picking up the reference to the city ‘The-Lord-our-integrity’, to which Jeremiah looked forward in the previous week. This city is personified as a beautiful and glorious woman, her mourning and distress all over. All her sons are coming home, and she can stand on the mountain top and watch them all returning in honour ‘though they left on foot’, ‘with enemies for an escort’. Now we are looking forward to the joy that is to come. I love this reading, especially at this time when every family is looking forward to its members reassembling. Baruch also talks about the mountains being flattened and the valleys filled in, but it’s a less familiar version than in Isaiah and Messiah, so we hear it with sharper ears. This journey home is an easy stroll, on smooth ground, in the shade of ‘fragrant’ trees, with God showing the way to follow and escorting the travellers. Every detail is covered, and it sounds idyllic, almost literally a walk in the park rather than an arduous pilgrimage.
The response to this is the joyful Psalm 125/126, commemorating an earlier return from bondage and thanking God for it. This again is a familiar psalm, which occurs often (we had it most recently on 30th Sunday B), but it’s so apposite that it earns its place here. The people in the psalm are active and engaged; they are singing, laughing, travelling, sowing and reaping; they move from grief to joy. They reassure us.
The second reading is Paul to the Philippians (so, a different group from the previous week) with a loving and joyful message and another exhortation to get ready for what is coming, which Paul presents entirely positively :'[…] the Day of Christ, when you will reach the perfect goodness which Jesus Christ produces in us’ (Phil. 1.11).
The Gospel : what it isn’t
The Alleluia verse is taken directly from the Gospel, and it’s where Luke quotes the familiar bit of Isaiah I referred to earlier, because he is introducing John the Baptist, preaching in the desert and fulfilling the prophecy. This is already Luke’s third chapter; we have skated over the birth of John the Baptist and all the details about Anna and Zechariah. We have also left out the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Magnificat and Zechariah’s beautiful prayer at the birth of his son, once he has regained his speech, the Benedictus. All that is in Chapter 1.
In Chapter 2, we have the census, the birth of Mary’s baby (Mary is almost introduced again in this narrative, as though we might not have read Chapter 1), with shepherds but no kings, taking the baby to the Temple and meeting Simeon and Anna (the Nunc dimittis, but sadly no record of what Anna said), and even the losing of Jesus in Jerusalem when he was twelve, and finding him in the Temple again. That is all Chapter 2. Those are two crucial and action-packed chapters, which we have simply set aside for now, even though they are vitally relevant. But our narrative requires John to be the Fore-runner, the Preparer, and that is his adult role, so several years have gone by. The timeframe resets at Christmas, when our narrative suddenly moves backwards.
Third Sunday of Advent C (Pink Sunday)
From the Entrance Antiphon (from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which we had the previous week), the keynote is of pure joy (till we get to the Gospel). ‘Rejoice’ is the first word in the Entrance Antiphon, and keeps ringing out along with ‘joy’ through all the readings (again, except the Gospel). The First Reading is from Zephaniah, addressed to a personified Israel, but female : ‘daughter of Zion’, ‘daughter of Jerusalem’, which is slightly unusual. It predicts the joy to come, but mixes up the tenses, so that it sounds as though the joy is here already : ‘The Lord […] is in your midst; you have no more evil to fear. When that day comes, word will come to Jerusalem : Zion, have no fear.’ The reading ends with a wonderful portrayal of God as a returning victorious warrior, bubbling over with joy and success, dancing and shouting for joy.
Responsorial Psalm : Isaiah 12 Canticle
The Psalm following this is slightly unusual, because it’s a Canticle, one of the parts of Isaiah in psalm-form. The Response begins ‘Sing and shout for joy’, repeating the words of the First Reading, and turning all of us into the ‘daughters of Zion’ responding with joy to the Lord on his victorious arrival.
There are a few of these Canticles in the Lectionary, out of Tobit, Chronicles, Exodus, Judith and some other books of the Bible. In the last week of the Church’s year, we have a sequence of highly-charged prophetic readings. Currently (until Advent) we are in Year I, and the readings are all from Daniel; in Year II, the readings are from the Apocalypse (the weekday readings are on a two-year cycle, not three- as the Sundays). Daniel’s readings are followed by canticles from the same book (taken from the song of the three young men in the fiery furnace), most of them shaped like a litany, and some recalling the Canticle of the Sun by St Francis, another outpouring of joy in creation. So we have been having that as a weekday psalm in the week running up to Christ the King. and it was difficult to set for a whole week’s worth, because it’s just two lines repeating. You can play with it where the words allow (e.g. references to water or wild beasts), and at least the congregation will have no trouble remembering their Response for that week. This piece of Isaiah is more straightforward, because even though it is irregular, it fits into the usual psalm shape.
This Canticle is full of joy and confidence, with references to water from the wells of salvation. We use it several times during the year (Baptism of the Lord, Easter Vigil, Sacred Heart as well as Advent). The Response picks up the line which also occurs in the First Reading about the Holy One being in our midst, and the cause of our joy.
Paul continues with the letter to the Philippians, the bit where the Entrance Antiphon also came from, about how we should be always happy because everything is going to be all right, a very comforting thought for anyone, and impressive when you think of how hard much of Paul’s life was.
The Gospel : more about John
The Gospel picks up from last week, with John shown in action preaching beside the Jordan. It’s not an exact follow-on, though, because the scary bit where John rebukes and condemns the people flocking to him has been left out. What we have is the next section, where the cowed and repentant people ask him specifically what they should do, and he tells them; but the second half is what John tells them about the coming Messiah, to stop them thinking that he is The One. The expectation is mounting all the time, but John explains clearly , ‘One mightier than I is coming […]with the Holy Spirit and fire’. This is not a cosy expectation, but it is described as ‘good news’.
Fourth Sunday of Advent C
The prophet for the Fourth Sunday is Micah, and this is his one appearance in the Sunday Lectionary, although most people also know the verses where he sets out what the Lord requires : ‘to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God ‘(Micah 6.8). This reading is from the fifth chapter, and sets the scene for what is about to happen. It is prophetic and mysterious. We are told that something will happen in Bethlehem, too small a place to be significant in any other way; that a baby will be born; but no ordinary baby. Exiles will return and the baby will grow into a great shepherd of his people, God-like, and with unlimited power and scope. That is not so unusual as a prophecy, but then there is a last line : ‘He himself will be peace’. This is not just victory in battles and expanding empire; this is something new. We need to wait and watch.
The psalm is 79/80, which immediately picks up the shepherd reference and identifies it with God himself. The psalmist calls to him for help as one of the exiled, begging to be allowed to return (and that’s the verse that becomes the Response, which mirrors the structure of the psalm in its original form). The second stanza is an appeal for protection, and the third one refers to the chosen saviour, ‘the man you have chosen’. Again, this is a familiar psalm (it occurs several times, and also in Year B as the psalm for the First Sunday of Advent), but it has several other verses, so it appears with different emphases. This version is straightforward and direct, less extended metaphor and more heartfelt appeal.
Second Reading : Jesus’ coming
Paul’s reading is from the letter to the Hebrews, and he’s explaining the context of Christ’s arrival in terms of the prescriptions of the Jewish Law, with an extensive quotation from Psalm 39/40. This is because of who his addressees are, familiar with all the scriptures as Paul was himself, and stressing one of Paul’s great themes, the difference between the letter and the spirit. Paul has been repeating the message of joy in the other Sundays of Advent, but this week’s reading is more technical. The joy element for this week, for the first time, is in the Gospel reading, specifically in the words of Elizabeth.
The Gospel : back to Luke 1
The Gospel Acclamation is Mary’s words to the angel, and they have to stand in for a lot of narrative work here, as the Gospel launches straight in to Mary’s journey to visit Elizabeth in Luke’s first chapter. You can almost hear the brakes screech as we return to Chapter 1. So Mary sets off (with no explanation), already pregnant (but no explanation for that either, though we do get the Annunciation as the Gospel for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, just to confuse), but the only person who speaks in this Gospel is Elizabeth.
She calls out as her own baby, further on than Mary’s, leaps in her womb and she is filled with the Holy Spirit. Her words are amazing and prophetic (in the true sense of the word : she speaks on God’s behalf). Mary has had no time for more than a greeting, but Elizabeth knows all the important facts already, and blesses and honours Mary with great joy. The word of God has made Mary pregnant with the Word of God; and Mary’s word as it reaches Elizabeth’s ear has revealed everything to Elizabeth, causing the baby inside her also to leap with joy. Anyone who’s ever been pregnant will remember that amazing sensation, starting like the flutter of a butterfly’s wing but developing into the muscular twists of the equivalent of an eight-pound salmon. Mysterious, magical, mystical, but also extremely physical.
Late arrival of a crucial character
All the Fourth Advent Gospels have Mary on stage. Matthew in Year A has his neat precis from Chapter 1, with the emphasis on Joseph and his reaction to Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, and the angel telling him not to worry. Advent 4 Year B has Luke’s account of the Annunciation (because Mark has no birth narrative at all, with Jesus arriving fully-formed to be baptised by John), and, as I said last year, it’s the first time Mary has appeared in the narrative. Year C, as we have just seen, has a brief account of the Visitation, but it stops immediately after Elizabeth’s words, so no Magnificat. Mary’s words (her one extended piece of speech in any of the Gospels) are used as a Responsorial Psalm in Advent 2B, and are read as the Gospel for the feast of the Assumption, but presumably are not seen as crucial to the story as it unfolds here.
It is baffling how little Mary appears in the readings in Advent, considering her role, and this being Luke’s year. I feel a lack here; I want to go through Advent with Mary, accompanying her on this journey from terror to joy. We have almost no solid information in any of the Gospels on this topic; the little we have is from Luke, and we’re using so very small a part of it in the Advent readings. Pregnancy and birth are such an important part of life for so many women. It is an experience which changes you. Mary is going to give birth to a unique being, unlike any other, who is going to change everything we thought we knew about life, the universe and everything. How could you not wonder at her and with her? I go through Advent wanting to know more about Mary and what she is thinking, but the Lectionary is not much help.
Its emphasis, rather, is on the joy that is coming, introduced in the early readings but not reaching the Gospels until the fourth week. The expectation is being carefully built up. We watch and wait, starting with fear but moving through into not just anticipation but present joy. Advent C is a wonderful journey. I’d just like to make it at Mary’s side.
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