Theology Blog: Some personal reflections on Advent and the Carol Service

The Revd Canon John Seymour – Advent 2013 

‘This wonderful season of Advent…’ began the introduction to the Cathedral Advent Carol Service on the First Sunday of Advent.  Agreed:  Advent has for a long time been my favourite season of the year.  There is so much to celebrate!

First, as the preamble to the service reminded us, there is a whole catalogue of comings: the coming of the child Jesus at Bethlehem; the coming to us of the Holy Spirit; the coming of Christ in the breaking of bread; his coming to us (and this was a new thought for me for which I am grateful) ‘in the joy of human lives that are shared’.  Then, most importantly, is the looking for and preparing for the future coming in glory of Christ the King.  But there is one other coming which surprisingly for Leicester Cathedral seems to have been left out: the coming of Christ to us in the poor – refugees and orphan children and the long list of the down-trodden of this world.

‘We look around and see thy face, disfigured, marred, neglected.
We find thee Lord in every place, sought for and unexpected.’

- from a hymn by Charles Ambrose (which sadly seems to have had a very short life in the hymn books.)

‘Today,’ the preamble continued, ‘we enter the solemn season of Advent’But solemn doesn’t mean gloomy.  Solemn is really the opposite of casual and informal.  Weddings are referred to as the Solemnization of Matrimony – there’s no intention that the ceremony should be gloomy and sad!  But marriage is a serious matter: and so is Advent.  We do need to be contrite and never blasé about the world of sin in which we share.  Lenten purple is the colour of Advent, and traditionally we forgo the singing of the Gloria in the Eucharist.  These are small but useful symbols.  But there is a need for balance, especially for those who can easily get depressed.  The Advent Responsories reminded us: ‘People of God, be glad and rejoice!  Your God delights in you!’  And that foundation stone of all Advent worship, the Veni Emmanuel, repeatedly calls on us to ‘Rejoice!  Rejoice!’

There is a third aspect of Advent which I think is also very important.  ‘This wonderful season of Advent,’ the preamble already quoted goes on to remind us, ‘is full of longing, yearning, and expectation.’  It’s the yearning that I like to highlight.  Here are some words from Julian of Norwich:

‘By repentance we are made clean,
By compassion we are made ready,
And by yearning for God we are made worthy.’

And Charles Wesley captures this so succinctly:

‘Dear desire of every nation
Joy of every longing heart’

Singing this verse moistens my eyes every Advent.  It is the longing heart that will in the end find and know the joy.  The Bob Chilcott carol sung by the choir, The heart-in-waiting (words by the poet Kevin Crossley-Holland) warmly reinforces this idea:

‘Here and now’, said the heart-in-waiting,
‘This is the place where you must be born’.

(Incidentally, I have since down-loaded the Naxos CD of Bob Chilcott carols which I’m sure will give new thoughts and enrich Christmas this year.)

Two other matters come to mind.  I wonder if it is appropriate to call the service an Advent Carol Service?  My Oxford dictionary defines a carol as ‘a religious folk song or popular hymn particularly associated with Christmas’.  We know there are also a few Advent carols, and some were included in this service.  But from my seat in the congregation I over-heard a couple of visitors thumbing through the booklet clearly expecting the sort of content described in the dictionary.

My other query concerns the inclusion of Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin.  I would welcome this lovely music in a concert, but in the context of worship some of us may have to opt out – (can’t quite cope with the theology).  My consolation is that it is important to some people whom I know, whose spirituality I detect and whose friendship I value.

And so my most grateful thanks to all involved in the planning, rehearsing and presenting of a very special and thoughtful service.  I felt that Dean David didn’t just read the prayers, he prayed them, and helped us in the congregation to do so too.

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But now I want to fast forward – a kind of preview or trailer of the next episode in the story – to the birth of Jesus on Christmas Night.  ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ can quite legitimately be translated as ‘he pitched his tent among us’I wonder where he would have pitched his tent if the precincts of Leicester Cathedral had been the chosen place?

Maybe in the Grand Hall in St Martins House?  Probably not, although we may meet him there in meetings and friendships and hospitality.  At the nave altar in the Cathedral?  Probably not, although we may meet him there in bread and wine.  Maybe in the choir stalls or organ loft?  For we may meet him there, too, through music and song.  My evangelical background pops up again and suggests the pulpit where the Word of God is regularly proclaimed?

But just possibly it might have been in that rather untidy spot in Peacock Lane, just outside the gate to St Martins House.  It’s a meeting place where folk gather together for a smoke and a chat.  It can be a bit cold on a windy day, but there is some shelter between the brick buttresses.  Could there be some symbolism here:  a Parable of the Kingdom?

© Canon John Seymour

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