Within the Church we have the season of Advent for four weeks, followed by the birth of our Saviour and finishing with the Epiphany. But where did these feasts come from and why do we celebrate them?
Advent, which means “coming” or “arrival” developed in the fifth century and was originally six weeks long, following the trend of Lent. Fasting was common throughout the six weeks. Later it was shortened to four weeks. It is a time when we meditate on the coming of Christ in two ways: we remember the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and we look forward to the coming of Christ in our lives today and on the last day. The readings of the Sundays focus in on these themes, with particular emphasis on the ministry of John the Baptist. The music which we use in our churches and prayer meetings should also reflect these themes.
Advent is a time when we need to reflect on ourselves, and our society if the birth of Christ is to have its full impact on us. The church has as its centre the Paschal Mystery, and this is what we share in throughout our lives as Christians. We are constantly reminded during Advent that God is our beginning and our end.
During the advent season we prepare to remember Christ’s first coming among us, while also pondering and preparing for Christ’s second coming at the end of time. This is reflected in the readings at our liturgies. From the first Sunday of Advent to the 16th December, we concentrate on the second coming of Christ, while the remainder of Advent, we are preparing for the Birth of Jesus. This is what the church is celebrating and it is important that we remember this. It is to this joy and anxiety that ‘God’s poor one’s’ are awaiting fulfilment. We wait in ourselves and in our community for the day when God’s kingdom will manifest itself in our world.
Constantly during the Advent season we are reminded of Mary’s role in the birth process of Christ. We can only imagine what her feelings were, hope, fear, surprise, discomfort, unease and joy. Much of these feelings exist in our society and our lives and we should turn to her in prayer.
In the Magnificat, which Mary said when she visited Elizabeth, to tell her of the great honour which had been bestowed on her, we are reminded of God’s power. It is one of the greatest prayers we have. It is our Prayer, our prayer of Justice. We are reminded in it that ‘God’s arm is power and strength, it scatters the proud of heart, it cast the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly ones.’ Maybe during this season of Advent we could be more just to one another, to welcome Jesus in the homeless, the hungry and the poor. After all Jesus ‘wept with the broken, starved with the hungry, and dies in the ones who die forgotten’ (Agapé, Marty Haugen).
Through our Advent we should make the stranger a welcome guest, and come to know the one who brings us life in the celebration of the word and in the breaking of the bread.
Advent has it’s climax on Christmas day, starting with midnight Mass. The earliest known celebration of Christmas took place in Rome 336 AD. Throughout the season of Christmas which runs from 25th December to 6th January we look at the infancy narratives as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Is there any connection between these narratives and the music we use at Christmas? As it happens, the Gloria we use at Mass was first used in Rome by one of the Popes at midnight Mass. But why did he include it here? The reason is, of course, that according to the account as given by St. Luke, the Gloria was sung by the angels on the night of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom God favours . The singing of the Gloria every year at midnight Mass is something very beautiful and wonderful and is of great importance.
Much music exists for this season, but we should be careful not to replace the traditional hymns which everyone knows. This would defeat the purpose of music in the liturgy. We are supposed to worship as a community, both in prayer and in song. This doesn’t mean that we are not to sing new Christmas hymns throughout the season, but to give a fair balance for the people of God. Many simple music exists in which the congregation can easily learn and join in with.