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An Advent Note

This year I have to a great extent managed to stay clear of the un-Christmas, the festivity now generally referred to in public as Holiday, or "the Holidays." That was partly because of various circumstances that kept me even more at home than usual. And it was partly the silver lining in Alabama having lost two games this season. I loathe TV commercials in general, and rarely watch TV that includes them. But when I do see them it's during football season, and from some time in October until the end of the year many of them involve Holiday, and thus are doubly, no triply, annoying. But Alabama football was over at the end of the regular season--no SEC championship game, no watching other games that might affect Alabama's place in the playoff picture--but also no more Holiday commercials. (I only care about the NFL when former Alabama players are prominent--congratulations, Jalen Hurts.)

And it was partly just the latest phase in a general re-orientation of my feelings at this time of  year. I've realized that one element of my hostility to Holiday was the way it had come to seem like something of a parody of Christmas. So it seemed like a cheat, making me struggle not to dislike it, even to hate it.

But as the divergence has continued I find that the two are now more separate in my mind. I wrote about this last year in my very brief career writing for The Lamp. And I find that this year I've been more able to take my own advice, and that Holiday does not much intrude on my observance of Advent. I'm even mildly cheered by the lights and other spectacles at people's houses, though walking into a store pretty much sours my mood, as does the Holiday music (which naturally gets stuck in my head).

Which does not mean that I've been very good about observing Advent by treating it more like Lent. But I have done something, and in this department something is always better than nothing. And one thing I've done is to begin reading a book that I've had for several years and that is very well suited to Advent: the prison writings of Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J.


Delp was an opponent of the Nazi regime, and in the last days of the Reich he was arrested on a charge of involvement in a plot against Hitler. He was not involved, but the prosecutor was determined to convict him of something, and as is almost inevitably the case when the law becomes a tool in the hands of power, he succeeded. It was late 1944 and early 1945, when the Reich was clearly doomed, and its enemies were pouring destruction upon Germany; the consequences of the nation's madness were being made brutally clear. The prison writings are the voice of a man unjustly imprisoned by and facing death at the hands of unreasoning and implacable enemies, a man stripped of any impulse toward sentimentality and false hope. It's a voice I need to hear. 

Unless we have been shocked to our depths at ourselves and the things we are capable of, as well as at the failings of humanity as a whole, we cannot understand the full import of Advent.

If the whole message of the coming of God, of the day of salvation, of approaching redemption, is to seem more than a divinely inspired legend or a bit of poetic fiction, two things must be accepted unreservedly.

First, that life is both powerless and futile insofar as by itself it has neither purpose nor fulfillment. It is powerless and futile within its own range of existence and also as a consequence of sin. To this must be added the rider that life clearly demands both purpose and fulfillment. 

Secondly it must be recognized that it is God's alliance with humanity, his being on our side, ranging himself with us, that corrects this state of meaningless futility. It is necessary to be conscious of God's decision to enlarge the boundaries of his own supreme existence by condescending to share ours for the overcoming of sin.

It follows that life, fundamentally, is a continuous Advent; hunger and thirst and awareness of lack involve movement toward fulfillment. But this also means that in this progress toward fulfillment humanity is vulnerable; we are perpetually moving toward, and are capable of receiving, the ultimate revelation with all the pain inseparable from that achievement.

While time lasts there can be no end to it all and to try to bring the quest to an ultimate conclusion is one of the illusory temptations to which human nature is exposed. In fact hunger and thirst and wandering in the wilderness and perpetual rescue by a sort of life-line are all part of the ordinary hazards of human existence. 

Fourth Week of Advent

Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour forth righteousness..

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, my salvation shall not tarry:
I have blotted out as a thick cloud thy transgressions:
fear not for I will save thee:
for I am the Lord thy god, the holy one of Israel, thy Redeemer.

Lazily searching for an online text that I could copy to save myself the trouble of typing it, I found it at a blog called Chantblog. I also found there this beautiful recording of the hymn in a chant setting. It's a bit puzzling to me, as it's the Book of Common Prayer English, but is described as Gregorian chant. Was it done fairly recently, or was chant used in Cranmer's time? I don't know and don't have time to dig into the question now. 

The choir is the choir of St. Etheldreda's church, a Catholic church in London. I'll have to go back and read more about it. Did it stay Catholic through the Reformation? 

Comfort ye, my people.

Third Week of Advent

Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour forth righteousness.

Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen;
that ye may know me and believe me:
I, even I, am the Lord, and beside me there is no Saviour:
and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.

That last line sounds pretty menacing, and yet in a way comforting, even apart from the words that immediately precede it. Somehow it captures the sense of God being inescapable, whether that's going to be a good thing or a bad thing for you. It makes me think of Christ's warning in Matthew 10:

And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

I was into middle age before it dawned on me that the second part of that refers not to Satan, as I had assumed, but to God. There is a pathological fear of God but there is also a very healthy fear of him. The substitution of "awe and wonder" for "fear of God" in current English renditions of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is a mistake.

But this was Gaudete Sunday, not the time for fear. I have a feeling that people who read this blog are likely to have heard Steeleye Span's performance of the old hymn "Gaudete," so here's a different one.

Or maybe you haven't heard Steeleye's, or have heard it but not this live performance, which is not perfect, but still rich:

I've always found their not-upper-class English pronunciation of the Latin charming. 

Second Week of Advent

Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour forth righteousness.

We have sinned, and are as an unclean thing,
and we all do fade as a leaf:
our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away;
thou hast hid thy face from us:
and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities.

Back in my Episcopalian days they had a song meant to be used in the "folk" liturgy. The refrain, as I recall was

God likes me just the way I am
I turned out just fine

I don't know where they got that idea. 

Here's another setting, not however including the words above. This one is by William Byrd. I had never heard of the performers, who call themselves the Gesualdo Six. That certainly indicates good musical judgment on their part.

First Week of Advent

Drop down, ye heavens, from above,
and let the skies pour down righteousness.

Be not wroth very sore, O Lord,
neither remember iniquity for ever:
thy holy city is a wilderness,
Sion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation:
our holy and our beautiful house,
where our fathers praised thee.

This is the first section (verse, stanza, whatever the right word is) of the Latin hymn Rorate caeli in the old Anglican translation known as "The Advent Prose." There are four sections, each preceded by "Drop down...." Here's a setting of the whole thing, composed by Richard Lloyd. The text is a little different, adding "let the earth open and bring forth a Savior" to the refrain.


Joy and Fear

If we had been told merely to fear [the coming of Christ], we should have mistaken a slavish dread, or the gloom of despair, for godly fear; and if we had been told merely to rejoice, we should perhaps have mistaken a rude freedom and familiarity for joy; but when we are told both to fear and to rejoice, we gain this much at first sight, that our joy is not to be irreverent, nor our fear to be desponding; that though both feelings are to remain, neither is to be what it would be by itself.... I say that whatever be the duty of fearing greatly and trembling greatly at the thought of the day of judgment, and of course it is a great duty, yet the command so to do cannot reverse the command to rejoice....

How joy and fear can be reconciled, words cannot show. Act and deed alone can show how.... 

May we learn to mature all graces in us: fearing and trembling, watching and repenting, because Christ is coming; joyful, thankful, and careless of the future, because he is come.



But Better Than Nothing

The very best that can be said of the fallen and redeemed race of Adam is that they confess their fall and condemn themselves for it and try to recover themselves. And this state of mind, which is in fact the only possible religion left to sinners, is represented to us in the parable of the prodigal son, who is described as receiving, then abusing, and then losing God's blessings, suffering from their loss, and brought to himself by the experience of suffering. A poor service indeed to offer, but the best we can offer, to make obedience our second choice when the world deserts us, when that is dead and lost to us wherein we were held!




Let us then consider this most serious question, which concerns every one of us so nearly: what is it to watch for Christ?

He watches for Christ who has a sensitive, eager, apprehensive mind; who is awake, alive, quick-sighted, zealous in seeking and honoring him; who looks out for him in all that happens, and who would not be surprised, who would not be over-agitated or overwhelmed, if he found that he was coming at once.


It's the last bit there that gives me pause. The quotation is from a sermon, but I don't know which one. Janet sent me a book, Waiting for Christ, which is a set of excerpts from Newman's sermons, one for each day of Advent. 

image from

An Advent Gripe

Not about, but on the occasion of: the complaint I made last year about the thing called "Holiday":

The American Christmas has always, or at least since the middle of the last century or so, had its secularized aspect. That was fine: we were a predominantly Christian country, but plenty of people who did not celebrate the religious holiday as such found much to enjoy in the cultural paraphernalia. Irving Berlin gave us "White Christmas," which no decent person could dislike or resent, and he was Jewish. Notice, though, that he didn't shy away from using the word "Christmas." From an early age I had a sense that something was missing when the decorations and greetings and such of the season left out any mention whatsoever of Christmas itself. And at a not so early, but not very late, age it occurred to me that "the holiday season" would lose the essence of its charm if the religious core of it were removed.

Well, that has pretty much happened now as far as public speech is concerned.

"Middle of the last century"? I must have meant to say the 19th. It certainly predated the middle of the 20th. But anyway:

The good part of this is that as I lose interest in Holiday I take more notice of Advent.

Which I'm currently doing. 


For Advent

Perhaps what we modern people need most is to be genuinely shaken, so that when life is grounded, we would feel its stability; and where life is unstable and uncertain, immoral and unprincipled, we would know that, also and endure it. Perhaps that is the ultimate answer to the question of why God has sent us into this time, why he permits this whirlwind to go over the earth, and why he holds us in such a state of chaos and in hopelessness and in darkness--and why there is no end in sight. It is because we have stood here on the earth with a totally false and inauthentic sense of security. So now, God lets the earth resound, and now he shudders it, and then he shakes it, not to call forth a false anxiety...

He does it to teach us one thing again: how to be moved in spirit. Much of what is happening today would not be happening if people were in that state of inner movement and restlessness of heart in which man comes into the presence of God the Lord and gains a clear view of things as they really are. Then man would have let go of much that has thrown all our lives into disorder one way or another and has thrashed and smashed our lives. He would have seen the inner appeals, would have seen the boundaries, and could have coordinated the areas of responsibility. Instead, man stood on this earth in a false pathos and a false security, under a deep delusion in which he really believed he could single-handedly fetch stars from heaven; could enkindle eternal lights in the world, and avert all danger from himself; that he could banish the night, and intercept and interrupt the internal quaking of the cosmos, and maneuver and manipulate the whole thing into the conditions standing before us now. 

That is the first Advent message: before the end, the world will be set quaking. And only where man does not cling inwardly to false security will his eyes be capable of seeing the Ultimate.

--Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J.

This is meditation for the first Sunday of Advent in Magnificat. I don't understand all of it but I'm really struck by the idea that God is shaking the world even as man believes he has control of it. The words meant more when I realized, checking their source, that they were written during World War II, possibly while Fr. Delp was a prisoner of the Nazis, soon to be executed.

I've seen Fr. Delp's name in Magnificat before, but nowhere else that I can remember, and I didn't know that he was active in resistance to the Nazis. which I guess makes him a martyr. There's more information at Wikipedia. The words above are taken from a collection of his writings called Advent of the Heart, which I think I want to read. 

Big Around As A Washtub


I hope Our Lady would take the title of this post in the affectionate tone in which I first heard it, which was from the lips of a college teacher in reference to his own wife's gravid condition. She was within earshot, if I remember correctly, and seemed to be more amused than not.

This painting is on the cover of this month's Magnificat, and I found it startling. I don't think I've seen another picture of the pregnant Mary that's quite so...pregnant. And I think it's good to be reminded of the elemental physicality of her condition, which sometimes gets missed in the devout respect shown to her, and especially as it would have been two days before the Birth. I would hope the homely comparison would have amused her as it did my teacher's wife (I think).

It occurs to me that many people today may not have seen a washtub. Here's one in operation (picture lifted from an interesting-looking blog called Old Picture of the Day:


Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending

Music for Gaudete Sunday

A few nights ago I was looking for Advent music to post this weekend. I came across this hymn, which I hadn't heard before. I played it once, only half-listening, shrugged, and then ran out time for looking without finding anything better, so ended up not posting anything. But we sang this today at Mass, and by the third verse I was thinking "Actually, this is great."


Bach/Gounoud - Ave Maria, Kathleen Battle and Christopher Parkening

Weekend Music

Finally, something a bit more seasonally appropriate. Not Advent-specific, obviously, but at least on the general subject. My friend Robert has been praising a collection of Christmas songs by Kathleen Battle, and it was while listening to one of them that I ran across this. Even though Christmas is only three days away, I decided to post this instead. 


The Christmas album, by the way, seems very good on the basis of the selections I heard. In general I tend not to like classical singers in non-classical material--the singers tend to overpower the songs. But these performances seem to be like the Ave Maria, very restrained and pure. It's called A Christmas Celebration.

Duvall: Standing At the Door

Weekend Music

This is a catchy, slightly noisy pop song (using "pop" in the broad sense, without trying to pin it to any of the myriad sub-genres of pop/rock--emo? post-punk? whatever). It was a free download from eMusic quite a while back, like maybe eight years or so. I liked it but never investigated the group further. I happened across it the other day and it struck me as appropriate for (almost) Advent. 


A bit of interesting background at AMG.

God is Being

Instead of attempting to free ourselves from the things of the senses, or abstracting from them, we should try to probe deeper into them; not stopping at their external appearance, which changes, but seeking what is hidden deep in their substance; their being, in a word. For God is Being. And thus we shall find him beneath the veil of the senses.

This is the meaning of the Incarnation. God became tangible, in order to teach us to find him in all that we touch and see and feel; for we are necessarily bound to the senses in this life. Jesus did not do away with these external contacts; what he taught us is not to stop at them.

—Dom Augustin Guillerand

(from Magnificat)

Maddy Prior & the Carnival Band: The Angel Gabriel

(Advent) Weekend Music

Maddy Prior With The Carnival Band - A Tapestry Of Carols - 08 - The Angel Gabriel

I heard this song used in an Advent context somewhere recently, and looked for it on YouTube, but didn't find it. So I'm trying something new: uploading my own copy. TypePad has an audio feature which I've never used before. There's a little play/pause control on the left side of the panel above, or should be, which appears when you roll the mouse over it.  This is illegal, so I will probably take it down after a week or two. May I suggest that if you like it you purchase the album? which, as I never tire of saying, is my favorite single Christmas album.

Ready For the New Liturgical Translations?

So, a week from today we begin using the new translations ("we" in this case being not just Catholics but Latin Rite Catholics). I'm wondering how much and how effectively other parishes have been preparing for this. In my case, I think not so well, unless it's been different at other Masses besides the one I normally attend.

Our pastor is a very fine priest, but he's also a very down-to-earth sort of guy whom one suspects did not really enjoy his theology studies. His discussion of the changes has not gone much past pointing them out: "We used to say this, and now we're going to say that." I get the feeling that he sees them as being more or less arbitrary, and that he's a bit annoyed at having to bother with them. So I'm expecting a somewhat rough transition.

On the other hand, I saw the bulletin of another local parish the other day, and there was a very good discussion there of what was changing and why. (It's possible there could have been something like that in my parish bulletin, because I don't always look at it.) What about your parish?

I think it will all be fairly anticlimactic, really. I don't think either the alarm and despair of the liturgical modernists or the triumph of the traditionalists is really justified, though I do certainly think these translations are, for the most part, a step in the right direction.

Waiting for Joy

Sunday Night Journal — December 20, 2010

One of the more irritating ways of dismissing the major Christian holidays is to declare that they “celebrate the turning of the seasons” or something of that sort. You know: Christmas marks the winter solstice by placing light and music at the darkest time of year; Easter is about the renewal of life in spring; etc. It’s not that these are wrong, and it is very fitting that these celebrations are placed where they are in the calendar (for the northern hemisphere, and especially for northern latitudes). But they are only a part of the truth, and when put forward as explanations they distort the truth by putting the lesser above the greater.

To treat these holidays as if their purpose is to mark the passage of the seasons is to deny their real meaning. It is a more accurate view of the matter to say that the seasons are used to emphasize the events commemorated by Christmas and Easter than the other way around. The traditional European Christian calendar, with Advent beginning in late autumn, Christmas near the winter solstice, Lent in deep winter, Easter beginning near the spring equinox, and the rest of the year designated as “ordinary time” is a way of organizing the time marked by the passage of the earth around the sun. It sanctifies the seasons but does not make them objects of worship or near-worship. It is not drawn down into them but draws them up into itself. It uses the cycle of seasons to point toward the end of all cycles. Both Christmas and Easter commemorate events that happened once and only once in all of history. And their appearance in history constitutes the beginning of the end of the cycles in which we live.

There are people who are naturally disposed to look on the brighter and warmer side of the earthly cycle, and those who are naturally disposed to look on the darker and colder side: optimists and pessimists, the sanguine and the melancholic. The sanguine can always say, at the winter solstice: the days will now begin to get longer, and summer is coming; things will get better. The melancholic can always say, at the summer solstice: the days will now begin to get shorter, and winter is coming; things will get worse. Each appears to have more or less the same degree of justification for his views. It’s the nature of life in this world that things change, that the very worst situation will either get better or come to an end, and that the very best situation will either get worse or come to an end.

But in the long run the melancholy view of this earthly life is the true one. Yes, in the day-to-day and year-to-year course of life, the results may be about even: day follows night, night follows day. Summer follows winter, winter follows summer. But life and death do not join that dance. Death follows life, and that’s the end of it. In the long run time is the destroyer. Every pleasure, every good thing, will disappear into the past of the one who experiences it, never to be retrieved. New joys may come, but they won’t last, and the time will come when those that are passing will not be replaced by new ones. Eventually the one who experienced them will also pass away into time, and all his experiences disappear with him.

Man is in love, and loves what vanishes:
what more is there to say?

The melancholic is one who cannot ever entirely forget that time and death are waiting for everything. It is this that make even the sweetest of earthly joys bittersweet to him—this, and the yearning for a joy that neither disappoints nor passes away.

The joy of the melancholic is always in the shadow of his knowledge that it can never be complete or permanent. “I don’t trust happiness. I never did; I never will,” says the country singer Mac Sledge in that wonderful movie Tender Mercies. And who would be so foolish as to tell him he should? Even a life miraculously fortunate and untroubled will come to an end. A young man wins the heart of the beautiful woman for whom he yearns, and promises to love her forever. But even if they live long and happily together, the end will come. They will lose the glow of youth and fade together, growing weak and wrinkled and slow. And no matter how much grace and devotion they bring to those years, time is bearing down on them, and will bring his scythe down to separate them.

The melancholic doesn’t celebrate the seasons so much as accept them, knowing that each brings its pleasures but that none of those will last. He prepares himself to let each one go even as it arrives. And he does this with everything in life.

But if Christianity is true then the melancholic is wrong in the longest run of all, and the sanguine are right. The significance of Christianity is not that it celebrates the cycles but that it ends them, and not by extinction, but by fulfillment. It promises joy that does not disappoint or fade away, and a life that is not closed by death.

It may appear to the sanguine that the melancholic lacks the capacity for joy. I suppose this is sometimes the case, and it’s a frightening thought, because for anyone to lose that capacity truly and completely would be to lose his soul. But I think more often the melancholic is wounded: he will no longer give his heart to a lover who has betrayed him more than once and will certainly do so again. Fault him for being weak or timid, too easily defeated, if you like, but you can’t say he’s unreasonable.

But he ought to celebrate Christmas without any such reservation, because it points toward an eternal Christmas. The lover will return, forever faithful and forever beautiful. And if the melancholic seemed in this life to lack the capacity for joy, well, just wait until you meet him in the new creation.


Enya: O Come O Come Emmanuel

Weekend Music

Ok, if you want to say the timeless purity of this hymn is not especially well served by Enya's lush treatment, I won't argue with you. I'll grant the case in the abstract. But I think it's beautiful, and besides I've already revealed my weakness for Enya by posting "Orinoco Flow" last weekend. And credit to Enya for singing it in Latin as well as English. I also realize that my mostly Catholic readers may be just a bit weary of the tune by this point in Advent, because you've probably heard it at every Mass since the beginning of Advent. You are hereby granted a dispensation from clicking the "play" button.


The Fourth Sunday of Advent

(Photo by my wife, Karen Horton. You’re welcome to copy it for use on another site but I would appreciate your acknowledging its source. Thanks.)

Google is mysterious sometimes. I’ve noticed for a week or so now that I’m getting a lot of hits from people doing Google searches for “fourth Sunday of Advent” or variations on that phrase. I discovered that this picture is one of the first few results returned for the phrase by a Google image search. However, searching for the other Sundays of Advent doesn’t bring you here, even though I have pictures like this one for every week of Advent.


Sunday Night Journal — December 11, 2005

Solemn Advent Vespers at the Cathedral

You can’t read much in the history of Christianity without running across the story of the 10th century Russian emissaries who, being sent by their ruler Prince Vladimir to discover the true religion, decided that they had found it when they witnessed the Divine Liturgy in the Church of Hagia Sophia. “For we knew not,” they told the Prince, “whether we were in heaven or on earth.” I don’t think anyone—at least, anyone who knows the state of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church—has much hope, still less expectation, of having such an experience in any Catholic church in our time. But it can happen. It has happened to me.

For some years now, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile, Alabama (that’s mo-BEEL, not MO-buhl) has offered solemn vespers on the Sundays of Advent. I haven’t attended as often as I would like; the cathedral is twenty miles away and for one reason or another it has more often than not been inconvenient for me to take the time. But it was at one of these services a few years ago that I had a momentary taste of what it might actually feel like to praise God in heaven, and I knew that there might be more than metaphor to those images of the redeemed singing eternally there.

The idea of an endless church service sounds more like hell than heaven to most of us, and is one of the reasons why people say those very ignorant and foolish things about preferring hell because it will be more interesting than heaven. But that’s a defect in us, and in our modes of worship. I have spent many years complaining, sometimes bitterly, about the drab and deadening quality of most Catholic worship: ugly buildings, wretched music, lifeless language. So it delights me to be able to report a ray of sunlight in the gloom.

The interior of the cathedral is beautiful and has unusually fine acoustics. For a cathedral, it’s rather small, and so an organ and a small but talented and well-directed choir can fill it with sound. The choir director knows how to use the space, with long slow lines of chant and polyphony that have time to bloom sonically. Most of the texts are sung, which means that our dispirited liturgical translations have little chance to work their negative spell. There is no badinage whatsoever. Offhand I don’t in fact recall a single word spoken this afternoon that was not part of the liturgy.

Above all, I think, there are two things operative here that make this service so worshipful: the first, the sine qua non, is reverence, and the second is a kind of taste which follows from and is supported by reverence. I don’t mean simple aesthetic taste, although that’s important. I mean also a sense of propriety as to what is compatible with reverence. The worst days of marginal competence in Catholic choirs may be over—I hope they are over—but I have heard any number of capable choirs sing a hodgepodge of peppy pop-worship songs and traditional hymns which always somehow seem to be calling attention to themselves, a quality strengthened by too-prominent placement of the choir and all their guitars, amps, mikes, keyboards, and mixers at the front of the church. In the cathedral the choir is in a traditional loft at the rear of the church, and the sound floats out into the huge reverberant space above us.

This reverence doesn’t seem the least bit strained or inauthentic, nor this taste self-consciously exquisite. Rather they seem to be the natural unforced result of a sense that we are approaching God and that our understanding of Who He Is leads naturally not to any sort of shallow conviviality but to a respectful attentiveness that necessarily becomes an external and internal quiet, because its object is outside itself. Nothing, therefore, seems directed toward the nurturing or manipulation of our feelings. The music is at the service of the texts. The texts are at the service of the Advent message: Something wonderful is about to happen. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.

The only disappointing thing about this afternoon’s vespers was the slight attendance. I don’t think more than fifty people were there. If anyone in the Mobile area is reading this: there’s still one more Sunday in Advent.