This post is also in today's parish newsletter for St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, Alabama. You can find that newsletter and more about what God is doing in and through the people of St. John's here.
Although we may prefer to skip over the message of judgment and apocalypse and jump straight to the road that leads to Bethlehem, Advent is a season of preparation for both Christmas and the second coming of Christ. How are you getting ready? There’s the tree to pick out or unbox. Decorations to pull out of the attic. Presents to buy or order online. A wreath to make and a menu to plan. But what about the second advent, the return of the Son of Man? How are you getting ready for that?
Clergypeople in our tradition often lament society’s tendency to overlook this season of anticipation by fast-forwarding to the savior’s birth or, worse, the supposed arrival of the chimney-sliding present-giver who bears little resemblance to his fourth-century namesake. Some of us are so fixed in our no-Christmas-until-Christmas mentality that, in response to a well-meant but perhaps premature “Merry Christmas!” our body language communicates an unspoken “Bah, humbug!” Although I bristle at the thought of dispensing with the inherent expectancy of Advent altogether, the music of this season has given me some space to let my guard down.
Music has immense power. With the right score, a film’s dramatic conclusion can bring tears to the eyes of even the least emotive movie-goer. A classic tune on the radio can transport us back to our senior prom or to our wedding. The right background music brings a celebratory note to a dinner party just as the wrong music can bring it screeching to a halt. During December, every store and every station seems to play Christmas music, but churches like ours play music of a different season.
While you can get a full dose of your favorite Christmas tunes in any number of places, if you want to hear “Joy to the World” in church, you will need to come on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or December 31. We will hear no angels heralding, “Hark!” and see no little towns lying still until we have arrived at the manger on the evening of December 24. This year, that distinction will feel even more pronounced as the Fourth Sunday of Advent falls on the same day as Christmas Eve. That morning, therefore, with the altar still bedecked in purple, we will hear the angel Gabriel tell Mary that she will give birth to God’s own child, and that evening, with the church transformed into Christmas splendor, we will gather at the manger as if nine months had passed in a single afternoon. It is enough to set spinning the heads of the Flower Guild, the Altar Guild, the clergy, and the congregation!
In the meantime, however, we are treated to some of the best music the church has to offer. We kick off the Advent season with “Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,” and remind ourselves of God’s promised salvation by singing, “The King shall come when morning dawns.” Instead of angel voices, we hark to the thrilling voice of John the Baptist, who announces from Jordan’s banks that Christ is nigh. Throughout the season, we pine for the Lord who is God with us in the familiar words, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” During this month, the music I hear on the radio fills my heart with pre-Christmas joy, but the music we share in worship prepares me for the joy that is still unfolding and that is yet to unfold, the joy of the promised fulfillment of all God’s promises.
In our parish, that countercultural celebration is not for us alone. This Sunday evening at 5:00 p.m., we join with many from this community in that spirit of anticipation as we bring our hearts and minds to God in our annual Advent Festival of Lessons and Carols. We hear eight readings from scripture, none of which complete the nativity but all of which anticipate the Lord’s coming. The choirs of St. John’s and Good Shepherd will be joined by the choir of Ascension in Birmingham as they sing of God’s promises. In that service, our prayers beg God to make right all that has gone amiss in our hearts, in our community, and throughout the world. If ever there was a time when God’s people needed to gather in anticipation of God’s salvation, it is now. So, come. Wait and watch with us. Let the music of Advent lift your soul into heaven’s courts, where you remember all that God has promised. Let this music make space in your heart not only for the savior’s birth but also for his longed-for return.