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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.

Alfred_Delp_MSM_2018_540x

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.

--Newman

BlurryHouseAtChristmas


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!

--Newman

 


Watching

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.

--Newman

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 lightondarkwater.typepad.com


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.