The story in the Advent psalms and readings, Year B

The Advent readings
woman with finger over mouth
No singing in church

Some of us can hear our readings and our psalms live at Mass, but even if we can only have broadcast services or reading the text for ourselves, studying them is an encouraging thing to be doing, particularly during this strange no-music Advent which seems to be what most of us are condemned to. So I thought I’d go through them and see what’s particularly interesting about this year’s readings, now that we have started Year B, which is the year when we read our way through Mark’s Gospel.

First Reading  in Advent is always one of the prophets

Luckily the texts are rich in encouragement and beautiful images even without any musical help.  Each year of the Lectionary, A, B or C, has its own distinct set of readings.  Year A (which we just finished at the feast of Christ the King) starts with the early part of Isaiah, his vision of everyone streaming towards the lifted-up Temple with joy and excitement.   Year B (which began with the First Sunday of Advent) starts with a reading nearly at the end of the book of Isaiah, the longest prophetical book of the Bible, and indeed the longest book of all, sixteen chapters more even than Genesis.  Year C, when we reach it next Advent, goes through some of the minor prophets instead of Isaiah.

Isaiah, First Sundays of Advent A and B

The Book of Isaiah starts with an account of God’s anger at the faithlessness of Judah, its downfall along with the whole of Israel, and a call to repentance.  Then in the second chapter, the mood swings round completely to an almost breathless call to everyone to ‘come up’, the great call to Jerusalem, which is the Year A reading (and we also have it as a regular reading in the Morning Prayer cycle).  The Year B reading in contrast comes from the sixty-third and -fourth chapters, a long way away from the beginning of the book.  Modern scholarship reckons that Isaiah is written by at least three writers, possibly by even more, but I don’t need to discuss that now, so for convenience, I’m just calling the author(s) Isaiah tout court.  As you might expect, the excitement of the early chapters has dissipated, and the tone is more realistic and regretful : this is all taking much longer than had been hoped in the beginning.  Now instead of all of us rushing to the mountain of the Lord, Isaiah calls on God himself to come down.  He describes how men have sinned and behaved as though they had forgotten God, but Isaiah knows that God has not forgotten them.  He reminds God that he is the Father, the Redeemer, the Lord of this people, and then he moves to a humble and intimate register : we are the clay, you are the potter.  It throws us back to the beginning of Genesis, and the version of Creation where God makes Adam out of dust; but the prophet’s object here is not to remind us of our lowly beginnings, but to remind God that he has a responsibility to us because he made us.

Antony Gormley’s little pot people, each made of a handful of clay
First Sunday B : Save me in your love

This is poetry, not prose (Isaiah is written in both), but it’s the tone which is fascinating.  It’s descriptive, not penitential.  ‘We’ acknowledge our guilt and sins, but we aren’t apologising, but rather calling on God to come and save his people, just because he made us and is responsible for us.  It’s almost like a challenge.

Psalm 79/80 : poetic form
Yggdrasil tree
See where your Celtic roots can lead you

The psalm (79/80) picks up this theme.  It’s an interesting psalm, one of the ones with a very clear poetic structure even in translation.  The first stanza is a call to God to come and help, and then there is a refrain : God of hosts, bring us back;/let your face shine on us and we shall be saved.  The next stanza explains how bad the people’s current state is, and repeats the refrain. Then the psalm takes a different course, and recounts the story of a vine, brought out of Egypt and planted by God in another place (the allegory is very clear).  It grew and flourished – and then God broke down the wall which kept it safe from all dangers.  Now it is in dire straits, and God needs to turn back to his people and make things right again (and, almost as an afterthought, we shall never forsake you again), followed by the refrain one last time.

Psalm 79/80 : turning round, turning back

We don’t have the whole psalm on the First Sunday of Advent B.  We have only the first call, then the request for God to turn back again to protect the vine, and then the last stanza about the man who will rescue the vine, interpreted for us as the coming of the Messiah, and the promise that we will never forsake God again, which looks less like an afterthought when the psalm is shortened like this.  We keep the Response as it is set in the psalm (more or less, depending on your Lectionary), but all the versions have the idea of movement back towards, and because half the movement is for us to make and half the movement needs to come from God, there is a beautiful idea of both sides turning back to each other. 

Second Reading and Gospel : stay awake!

Then we have Paul, thanking God for the strength of the Spirit among the Corinthians.  The Gospel is Jesus encouraging everyone to stay awake because we do not know God’s timetable.  Year B is Mark’s Gospel, but this is not the beginning of it, because that is the Gospel for the second week.  This  piece is just a few verses where Jesus encourages everyone to wait actively for what God is planning.  It is to set the mood for the whole of Advent.  Mark’s Gospel is probably the earliest, and certainly the most immediate and direct, where Jesus speaks very clearly and forcibly, repeating points to reinforce them.  So we get ‘stay awake’ four times in only four verses of Gospel, it’s like a bell clanging.  And because we can’t have music in church, here’s a link to the stunning Bach Chorale Wachet auf, the essential music for this season.

Second Sunday of Advent B : comfort now

The Second Sunday of Advent B is again Isaiah, but we have gone backwards, as this is from the middle section of the book, actually Chapter 40, where the tone changes to one of comfort.  This is where Handel’s Messiah begins, and for anyone that has ever sung it, it’s impossible not to hear the music when you read the words.  This is immediate comfort, not just hints of possible future solace : ‘Tell Jerusalem that her time of service is ended’….’shout without fear : here is your God’.  So the coming is not just to be expected, it is actually here.  The Lord is coming, mighty and victorious, but he is coming like a shepherd, cuddling a lamb, and we don’t need to be afraid any longer.  How does the psalm respond to this?

taking good care
Psalm 84/85, a psalm of two halves

It is Psalm 84/85, which is a psalm of two halves, though we are going to use only the second half.  The first half remembers God’s mercy and forgiveness in bygone days, and appeals for them again.  It ends with the couplet which gives us our Response : ‘Let us see, O Lord, your mercy /and give us your saving help’, but because it comes after cries for help and fear of God’s anger, it feels almost desperate.

Justice and peace have – already – embraced

The second half, the part actually prescribed for us to use, has a totally different atmosphere; the psalm in its entirety is like a before-and-after picture.  It starts with confidence and serenity, describing God speaking of peace in the present, not even the future, tense.  ‘Mercy and faithfulness have met’ even before God starts to speak.  Everything is all right now.  This is a beautiful psalm, with a picture of life almost like heaven or Paradise garden.  We use this psalm for Australia Day because it is so idyllic.

Justice and Peace will embrace when the music stops
Second reading : St Peter : How long is a ‘day’?

The second reading is from St Peter, clarifying the difference between God’s time and our time.  The Lord is not slow, but he is patient, and he is giving us all time to reform before his return.  This must have been so difficult for the first Christians, and Peter’s words are impressive in their simplicity and honesty.  The apostles thought for a very long time that Jesus was going to come back in their lifetimes, and each of them had to work out how to handle the fact that he didn’t.  Particularly during Advent, Peter’s explanation and encouragement to patience are worth reading and rereading.

John the Baptist bursts onto the stage : Gospel

Then the Gospel cuts to the chase : this time the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel, quoting precisely the bit of Isaiah that we have just heard, setting the scene, and describing the arrival of John the Baptist.  Mark doesn’t give us the (highly exciting) birth narrative, which is in the Gospel of Luke.  He simply reminds us of the prophecy and then says …’and so it was that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness..’ and we are on the way, because Mark has no birth narrative for Jesus either.  He wants to tell us just about Jesus’ life as an adult, what he did, who he met, what he said, and what happened, which is why it can feel almost breathless  (and count the number of times something happens ‘immediately’).

Third Sunday of Advent : Rejoice

We start the Readings for Gaudete (Pink) Sunday by going back to nearly the end of Isaiah again, this time celebrating a joyful prophecy of turning everything upside-down, with a hymn of exultation.  The Psalm is actually a Canticle at this point, because it’s the Magnificat, from Luke chapter 1 instead of the book of Psalms, and not even all of that.  We can’t sing it, so here’s another Bach link to the wonderful Netherlands Bach Society, singing the whole thing (if I can find good links, I’m going to put them in, because we’re all running short of music at the moment).  However, it picks up the exultation of the First Reading in what is probably an exact quote in the Hebrew, if only I could read it (My soul rejoices in my God/ My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour), and continues the topsyturvey motif, feeding the starving and sending the rich empty away.  Our Response is precisely the line which occurs in both texts.  It’s good to see the Magnificat here, because so far Mary has not figured at all in these Year B Advent readings, and indeed, if you didn’t know it was the Magnificat, there is nothing to tell you, as the Gospel for Third Sunday of Advent B is the beginning of John’s Gospel, just after the Logos passage, where he describes the arrival of John the Baptist (similar to Mark’s account last week, but fleshing it out a bit), and his account of himself to the Pharisees who challenge him and ask if he is the Messiah.

Fourth Sunday of Advent B : somewhere special for God to be 

So after three Advent Sundays, we are still poised waiting for something more than misty prophecies and gnomic denials.  But the Fourth Sunday is coming.  The first reading for the Fourth Sunday is from the book of Samuel, and is a little baffling to begin with.  We are back in the time of David.  He has just settled into his house, his enemies have all been dealt with by God, and David feels bad because the Ark of the Covenant is in a tent.  He asks Nathan the prophet whether he should not make better arrangements, and at first Nathan says yes.

Beautiful tents
some tents are spectacular, however
God’s promise to David

But God speaks to Nathan when he is asleep that night, to send a message to David.  God does not need David to build him a house.  He himself took David away from the sheep he lived among and has given him everything, from that day on.  The unspoken subtext is that if God wants a better house than David’s, he could create it in no time at all.   And then God makes astounding promises to David, about how he will plant the people of Israel in a place that God himself will choose and they will thrive; but as for David,  he will give him ‘fame as great as the fame of the greatest on earth’, and when he dies, God undertakes to look after his children for ever.  It almost sounds like the promises in fairy stories until you realise that it’s the other way round and the fairy stories are in fact a pale imitation of what God is promising here.  David will have a House, like a Scottish clan or a European royal house, and God will always be in loco parentis to David’s descendants. 

Psalm 88/89 : God’s promises will be fulfilled

This is followed by Ps 88/89 (all the Advent B psalms are fairly close together), which is a celebration of God’s love and truth. The second and third stanzas are part of God’s promise from the first reading set to music, so that the prophecy is repeated, and the words of the Response express total confidence that God will keep his word.  The second reading is St Paul to the Romans, explaining that Jesus is the solution and revelation of the mystery and everything has happened according to God’s plan.  And finally we have the Gospel, taken from Luke (because Mark and John don’t do the birth narrative), and describing the Annunciation, explaining how Jesus is the fulfilment of precisely the prophecy we have had in the other readings, and tying everything together.  Mary gives her consent; the angel leaves her.  God has arranged the very special place for him to dwell in.  Mary is far more than just a container, but that was one of the ways in which her role was interpreted in the early days of the Church.  Her titles  in the Litanies include ‘Spiritual vessel’, ‘Vessel of honour’, ‘Tower of David’, ‘Ark of the Covenant’, and so on. 

note the relative positions : the angel is asking, not telling
‘A’ virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph

I feel it’s almost a shame that we have to wait for the Fourth Sunday to get to this point, because the next thing that happens (liturgically) is the Christmas Masses (Vigil, Midnight, Dawn, Day), but I would like to have a chance to spend more time thinking about Mary at this stage.  What must it have been like for her?  We don’t hear anything about her mother in the narrative, only about Elizabeth; was she the only person in whom Mary could confide?   Mary must have been living with someone, even if her mother or father were dead, because she is so young, but we hear nothing about anyone else on Mary’s side of the family.   We hear (in Matthew’s Gospel, interestingly, not in Luke, where Mary is traditionally supposed to have had some input)  about Joseph’s disquiet, and generous decision to ‘put [Mary] away quietly’, after discovering that she is pregnant, but we are told nothing at all about Mary’s feelings.  All we have is her two sentences to the angel, and the Magnificat, that chant of joy and confidence, subversive and yet so orthodox (see how it mirrors the prophecy in Isaiah, and also the prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2).  But I think back to being pregnant, the joy, the wonder, the trepidation, the excitement, the longing, and my heart goes out to that unexpected and unexpecting central character of the whole narrative of Advent.  Christmas is about Jesus; but Advent is surely about Mary.  We wait with her.

a beautifully pregnant Mary


© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020 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.

Cats: on Christmas cards, but not in the Bible

Each year a special Christmas animal

Whose turn is it this year?

Every year there’s a noticeable particular animal trend in Christmas card pictures.   One year it was penguins, and they were everywhere. It’s been horses (often attached to stagecoaches),

decorated mediaeval hedghog
another festive Christmas hedgehog….nothing new under the sun

occasionally stags, or even hedgehogs in recent years.  Sheep and donkeys often get a look in, but at least they are there in the Gospel narrative. Cutesy polar bears were around last year (nothing to do with the Nativity, and quite a strain. A less cutesy animal is hard to imagine, possibly only the giant squid).  Sometimes the animals are natural(istic), sometimes completely anthropomorphised (e.g. robins with waistcoats).  This year, one Hampshire council has opted for a sixteen-foot neon marmot as its main Christmas display, baffling at least some of its residents (and I have to say I don’t warm to the rodent-type animals, however Christmassily dressed).  I am still working from a very small sample, but I think this year’s animal may turn out to be a reindeer (again).  Maybe there’s a cycle, like Chinese astrological animals, though evidently a different selection (I’ve never seen a Christmas ox, or heard of a Chinese Year of the hedgehog).

lots of animals at once, all celebrating Christmas together as they do

Cats and Christmas

Cats nearly always feature among the Christmas cards, even if they aren’t the main animal that year.   A cosy scene with a fire, a chair, holly round the hearth and a cat curled up on a cushion : this seems to be an irresistible Christmas trope.  Cats represent comfort and cosiness, practically a personification of hygge.  You don’t even have to have a cat to understand the message here, and celebrating warmth and comfort in the middle of a dark winter antedates the Christian era.  So there are lots of cats on Christmas cards; but (except for much later, especially twentieth-century versions) they are not present in the Bethlehem scene.  (Someone actually said that about the marmot, and one can only agree.  They aren’t native to Britain …. or Palestine.)

Nearly everything else, but no cats!

Cats are uncanonical

When I wrote a blog on animals in the psalms, I was slightly surprised to find there were no cats in the psalms at all.  I was even more surprised, on extending my research, to find there were no cats in the Bible (this is making me feel like Edna Mode and ‘no capes’ in The Incredibles).  There are obvious reasons for this.  For a long time the Israelites were in Egypt as slaves.  They preserved their difference and resisted integration by defining themselves against the Egyptians, in various ways.  The Egyptians had a very striking cat-god; the Jews avoided cats, and did not have them in their houses.

The great Egyptian cat at the British Museum,

The animals which are in the Bible

There are big cats in the Bible : mountain lions and proper lions, among the wild beasts and dwellers on the mountains.  They are creatures which the psalmist prays to be delivered from.  But he doesn’t mention domestic animals much.  There are the ones which represent your wealth (sheep, cattle, goats), and there are the wild ones which are a threat to them (lions, wolves, packs of dogs).  There are the (mostly) harmless and beautiful ones whose function is to demonstrate God’s beauty and power (everything else, including birds, fish monsters and hyraxes), but the fireside cat does not feature.

Adam with assorted beasts
Here are the animals waiting to be named, including mediaeval (but not Biblical) cats, bottom left

Putting the feline back into festive

Cat lovers are not to be thwarted, though.  There are lots of books for children which tell the story of the Nativity from the point of view of the stable cat.  There are books about adopting a kitten for Christmas, Christmas carols for cats and even a cat version of The Night Before ChristmasHere is a link to such things if you don’t believe me, and that is only one of many.  That one actually says, disarmingly, ‘It is truly amazing how many great Cat Christmas books are available for the holidays’.  Indeed it is.

a musical cat preparing to join in with the carols

Cats who walk by themselves

These are all fairly gentle and domesticated cats, though, and I have to say that I find the ‘otherness’ of cats is the main part of their charm.  I like the way they leave you alone and have a certain aloofness, more like the Egyptian statues than the ones that look like a version of a teddy (I can feel myself shedding readers as I pursue this!).

Holy Family plus John the Baptist and his cat (Barocci)

A special cat in a special poem

I was lucky enough to read Christopher Smart’s lines on his cat Jeoffry when I was quite little.  I didn’t understand them very well, but I was charmed, and the lines stuck in my mind.   (I came across them in a wonderfully imaginative anthology of children’s verse edited by Louis Untermeyer.)   Smart was a strange man who lived in the eighteenth century and spent a lot of time in an institution for the insane (I’m not calling it a ‘mental hospital’ at this date, as I suspect it was horrific), wrote various books and died eventually in a debtors’ prison.  The lines on Jeoffry are from Jubilate Agno  (Rejoice in the Lamb), which he wrote while in the madhouse, though it wasn’t published until 1939.  Benjamin Britten set some of it to music (here’s a link).

the Minister’s cat is a musical cat

Jubilate Agno, not quite like anything else

It’s a weird work, almost like a compendium.  There are whole sections where each line starts with ‘Let’, and others where the first word is ‘For’, there are alphabetical sections, there are parts which are funny and other parts where it’s unbearably poignant.  Each line is a single sentence, which lends the whole work a sort of declamatory character, despite its being so personal.   Smart is a polymath.  He knows a  lot, but the charm is in how he puts it together.  He is a most precise observer of the natural world, with plenty of time to observe it, and he sees references to God in everything.   He is fascinated by language and music; he loves to make lists; he creates odd correspondences; he is a synaesthetic.   He is completely original and uncompromising.  Some of the time you can’t work out what he is talking about, but you feel that there is a key if only you could find it.

Jeoffry, a religious cat

Jeoffry is out of one of the ‘For’ sections, and the advantage of coming to this strange poem via Jeoffry is that it is such an acute and exact portrayal of a real, beloved cat.  And of course he is a religious cat; the second line of this section is ‘For he is the servant of the living God, duly and daily serving him’.  Smart describes him so vividly that you can see him ‘wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness’.  It’s really difficult to quote from Smart because a lot of the effect is in the accumulation, and I would want to go on for too long, so I recommend looking it up (full text here), and I will just mention a couple more lines : ‘For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him. /For he is of the tribe of Tiger.’  Indeed he is, and William Blake would recognise him.

Leonardo could do cats as well

Putting cats back into the Bible

Smart thought that there should be cats in the Bible.  Indeed, he tells us that they are there, brought out of Egypt where they were numerous and plentiful (sorry, Smart’s style is catching!) : ‘For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt. /For every family had one cat at least in the bag.’   You will search for this in the book of Exodus totally in vain; it’s not Moses, it’s Smart.  Smart feels that every home should have a cat because of its services in dealing with pests, but also ‘For every house is incompleat without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit’, which is exactly what my eldest son would say of his cat today.

Cats packed for travelling

Pest control

The practical point of cats is that they deter rats and mice, though Smart mentions this almost in passing, because he enjoys so many other aspects of Jeoffry.  He does say though that the cat ‘made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services. /For he killed the Icneumon-rat very pernicious by land’, and in the mighty granaries of Egypt the cats must have been very useful.  What did the Israelites do without cats, to protect their stores?

Dealing very efficiently with the Icneumon-rat

Apparently you can also use ferrets or weasels as pest-control, so one suggestion is that the Israelites had ‘house weasels’.  I think these are, however, unlikely ever to figure as Christmas animals. Ferrets and weasels are always baddies (witness The Wind in the Willows), and fairly rat- and mouse-like themselves.   Their size, their type of fur, and their faces are against them.  (I cannot resist making another reference to the marmot.)

Felix feliciter

Christmas cats are here to stay.  They mean comfort and luxuriating in it, which is what we all enjoy at Christmas (after singing our hearts out earlier, of course).  We can only aspire to their total relaxation and satisfaction. I shall leave the last word to Smart and Jeoffry : ‘For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good cat.’

Gainsborough cats

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. 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.