Advent of Year C : joy just round the corner

Starting a new liturgical year
Lovely but entirely mythical scene of St Luke painting Mary and baby Jesus

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.

Christ the king, ruling in majesty
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’.

Jerusalem strongly compact, with all the little towers
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.

daughter Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem
Psalm 125/126

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
a Coptic John the Baptist, with his whole life flashing before his eyes

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.

Peaceful holy well
St Brannoc’s holy spring welling up to eternal life

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
Christ as shepherd-king

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.

Psalm 79/80

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. 

Visitation
mutual support, something women are good at

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.

 

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2021 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Starting singing again in church

A long and winding road

We are slowly easing back towards normality in our parish, but it’s taken a long time and we still have a long way to go. There have been long periods when many of us couldn’t go to Mass in person, either because it wasn’t allowed because of lockdowns or because somebody in the family was self-isolating. We all got used to Masses on-line, or gave up altogether and hoped for a better future, but I don’t want to go in detail through all the stages of that gloomy period.  My memory of it is thankfully fading, and I don’t want to sit down and work it all out in detail again.  But we have now reached a stage when we can look back in general terms, I think.

a long and winding road…to get back to where you started from
Silence in the pews

It seems almost like a bad dream, so I may be a little out in my sequencing, but as I remember,  we went from nobody being allowed to go to church in person,  – to being allowed to attend Mass, but only in small numbers and no singing,  – to a small group (six) people being allowed to sing on behalf of everyone else,  – to less emphasis on the numbers, but still compulsory (according to the parish itself, no longer by law)  masks in churches.  So we had more people allowed in the churches, but no congregational singing.  Different countries  (like different denominations) have had different patterns of Covid precautions; some churches have had some music as part of their recorded Masses, some live, some from CDs.  It’s been very confusing, very patchwork and rather unhappy.  Some church musicians have done heroic work, like my friend in Adelaide in Australia, who has been singing a daily psalm at the Cathedral Mass all the way through the pandemic, whenever it was allowed (I know about this because she emailed me to ask for settings of the weekday psalms, which is why there are more of those in the Australian version on the website than for any other country).

Swans singing
Hunting for extra voices to boost choir numbers
Bringing things back to life

I want to think about how we can get the machinery of liturgy and church music grinding back into action, and what it feels like as we are doing it.  So here’s an account of what’s been going on in one of the Sunday Masses in one parish in England, and how it feels to be doing it.

Starting with hymns

When we were finally allowed, and those who would be constituting the choir wanted, to start singing again, there were immediately problems because you were allowed only six singers and we could not even muster those.  Many singers were either still self-isolating or had not returned to Mass in person yet.  But we had an organist, a few (double-jabbed) voices, and a deep sense that even limited music was a good idea.  So we started just with hymns, and nothing too ambitious.  We did not even try to sing the Mass; the usual Mass setting for that particular Mass previously was an old one in English (from before the ‘new translation’, so the words were not the current version), and in four parts, which we certainly couldn’t manage.  So we just had hymns, and quite short ones, too, because the time needed at Communion, for example, was much reduced as the congregation was so shrunken.

Little organ
teamwork makes the dreamwork
Humming along

Just starting with the hymns was touching, because the congregation didn’t have any hymn books and wasn’t supposed to join in anyway, although there was a bit of audible humming from behind masks.  What struck me, though, was how they patiently stood and waited at the end until we had finished.  They clearly didn’t see the music as a mere accompaniment, or a sound track to their leaving the church,  but an integral part of the service, and several people said how glad they were to have it back.  Of course there are people who don’t like any singing at Mass, but there are several Sunday Masses available, and only two have any music, so people do have a choice.

…but which hymns?

Choosing the hymns : now is not the time for interesting new versions and unfamiliar tunes.  If you pick fairly well-known ones, the congregation will hum along, and some of us even remember the words, having an alarmingly good memory for hymns with short lines, nurtured by years of school assemblies (no hymn books because they are too hard to sanitise).  But we are also trying to avoid anything too dirge-like.  In our church there are even too few singers to manage parts or some of the big hymns reminiscent of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  We’ll get there, but for now, we’re thinking more of gentler hymns which encourage a prayerful atmosphere and make people feel comfortable and reassured.  He who sings, prays twice; especially if the words are good and you enunciate them clearly.  I shall stop sitting on the fence and offer some solid examples : anything by George Herbert, anything translated by Catherine Winkworth or E. Caswall, anything with an old German psalm tune, and don’t forget the old favourites like Soul of my Saviour, and the familiar psalm-hymns (The Lord’s my shepherd, All people that on earth do dwell, O God our help in ages past).   The words are very important!  They have to make sense and not just be emoting, because people are actually going to be listening to them.

Youths singing
only six singers at a time
Then the Alleluia and the Responsorial Psalm

Moving on from the hymns, we wanted to reintroduce singing the Alleluia, and then the Responsorial Psalm.  We did the Alleluia first because it is one of the shortest elements, especially if you don’t repeat it at the beginning.  The congregation still wasn’t supposed to join in, so we limited the number of repeats, and avoided using the lectern and making eye contact.  This all felt very peculiar, as usually what you are doing is desperately trying every body-language way you can think of, to communicate that you do want people to join in.  Now in contrast we were just doing a pared-down version of these parts of the Mass, on everyone else’s  behalf, which felt like quite a responsibility.  Some of the time there were gaps, pauses and hitches, as the readers tried to remember which parts they were no longer doing, but that’s fine, I’m sure God does not expect a perfectly choreographed offering every Sunday! 

Last week we sang the Response to the psalm just the once, as we had been doing since we restarted the singing, and went straight on into the verses, only to hear the congregation trying to repeat it (still with masks on).  The rules about congregational singing, though a bit unclear, have apparently been eased, so next week we will reinstate the repeat and see how it goes.  That coming psalm (53/54) has a nice easy Response, too.  The Lord is on our side.

Snail shell with person emerging
encouraging the singing (once it’s allowed)
Singing the Mass (or bits of it)

For the last few weeks, we have been singing the Kyrie, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei out of my Mayfield Mass setting, with just the tiny choir singing it and the congregation listening.  It is a new setting for this congregation, but I’m actually delighted to be able to introduce it in this way, as they are learning what it sounds like without any risk of embarrassment over making mistakes, and I think they will move into singing it with no trouble (we’ve had some positive feedback, and I’m delighted to say that the congregation toddlers are swaying to the Agnus Dei, which I love to see).  It will probably be a while until we can tackle the Gloria, but there’s no rush.

mediaeval dancers in a line
Hold hands and keep together : another group of six
Still a work in progress

We are still a scanty congregation.  This week we put the pews back to the way they used to be instead of bunching them up and labelling them so that people had to sit two metres apart.  It looks very strange, even though we know it never used to.   The pews look astonishingly close together,  and the Communion queues bunch up and spread out unexpectedly as people try to remember what version of social distancing is current.  I’m more comfortable with the uncertainty than with those who ostentatiously push for going faster,  because we are in fact still being asked to wear masks and keep some distance in our church.  I would like there to be more open doors, and to have the fans in use.  I know we usually keep them only for summertime, but they are an easy way to encourage ventilation, and our church is modern and low, not one of the soaring Victorians with a big ceiling space.

Singing hopefully on the journey

Repeating the Response and the Alleluia seemed to run smoothly, so we’ll keep those going.  Our aim is to glide smoothly into more singing, letting people join in as much as they feel able to.  A church choir is meant to lead but not replace the singing by the congregation, at least since Vatican II.  It is going to take a while, even as the pandemic restrictions have taken a while.  Christians have always sung together,  borrowing psalms from the Jewish tradition and writing their own hymns from the earliest days.  Singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (nice distinctions, there),  as St Paul urges in Ephesians 5.19,  is for many of us a completely natural and integral part of the Mass.  We have missed it.  It is wonderful to hear it coming back.

Church choir
all singing together : something to look forward to

 

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2021 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.