Advent is a season of preparation. For centuries Christians have used the month prior to the celebration of Christ’s incarnation to ready their hearts and their homes for the great festival. While we moderns tend to do a good bit of bustling about in the crowded hours between Thanksgiving and Christmas--shopping for presents, compiling guest lists, mailing holiday greeting cards, perusing catalogs, decorating hearth and home, baking favorite confections, and getting ready for one party after another--that hardly constitutes the kind of preparation Advent calls for.
Indeed, traditionally Advent has been a time of quiet introspection, personal examination, and repentance. It is a time to slow down, to take stock of the things that matter the most, and to do a thorough inner housecleaning. Advent is, as the ancient dogma of the Church asserts, a Little Pascha--a time of fasting, prayer, confession, and reconciliation.
All the great Advent stories, hymns, customs, and rituals--from the medieval liturgical antiphons and Scrooge’s Christmas Carol to the lighting of Advent candles and the eating of Martinmas beef are attuned to this notion: that the best way to prepare for the coming of the Lord is to make straight His pathway in our hearts.
One of my favorite Advent traditions is the of quiet and reflective beauty of the "Lessons and Carols" service. Most closely associated with the King's College Chapel, Cambridge, the service consists of nine Scripture lessons which alternate with carols of a similar theme. The lessons and carols tell of the Fall of Man, the promise of a Savior by the prophets, the annunciation to Mary, the shepherds and angels, and ends with the reading of John chapter one.
Sometimes performed for several evenings throughout Advent and sometimes just on Christmas Eve, the service follows a form laid down by the King's College Dean, Eric Milner-White, in 1918. As he saw it, the strength of the service lay in the Scripture readings which outline the need for redemption, the promise of a Savior, and the Nativity itself. Milner-White patterned his service on an Order of Worship drawn up by E.W. Benson, later Archbishop of Canterbury, for use in the wooden shed which then served as his cathedral in Truro on Christmas Eve 1880. His son, A.C. Benson recalled, "My father arranged from ancient sources a little service for Christmas Eve--nine carols and nine tiny lessons, which were read by various officers of the Church, beginning with a chorister, and ending, through the different grades, with the Bishop. "The suggestion for the service had come from G.H.S. Walpole who later became the Bishop of Edinburgh.
The original services in Cambridge have been adapted and emulated throughout the world. With the exception of 1930, the BBC has broadcast the concert annually since 1928. This includes the period of the Second World War, when the ancient glass (and also all heat) had been removed from the Chapel and even the name of King's College could not be broadcast for security reasons.
The combination of prayers, liturgy, carols, Scripture, and congregational worship creates a solemnity that recognizes the historic nature of the Christian faith as well as a celebration of the fulfilled promise of redemption. Thus, "Lessons and Carols" is a wonderfully rich antidote to the smothering secularism of our modern holiday season.
Believing in Nothing
Speaking of the smothering secularism of modernity, David Hart has written a stunning rebuke of our barren philosophical and spirtual wasteland in the current issue of First Things. It is a sobering reminder of how the petty and capricious gods of Promethean Will, Autonomous Liberty, and Unencumbered Choice have delivered us into the hands of an opulent void of nihilism.
Beautiful liturgical wall calendars incorporating the 2004 lectionary are available at the Life in Jesus Community web site. Designed for the International Charismatic Episcopal Communion, the calendars are very helpful for Christians from any and all traditions to understand and follow the complete course of the Gospel throughout the church year.