On Advent Sunday as I was greeting parishioners after the high mass, someone commented to me, “I love Advent – it wraps up penitence and joy all within the same season.” I am guessing the comment came from the fact that we began our Sunday liturgy with the Great Litany in procession, a prayer full of penitential petitions, and yet we also sang several rousing Advent hymns such as “Lo, he comes with clouds descending.” I have been reflecting on the comment about how Advent is both penitential and joyful. All of us have our interior lives to improve which requires penitence, confession, and self-reflection, and yet we are also in a time of anticipation that is joyful. The countdown to Christmas has begun. We are joyful, but we also know that there is work to be done to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Word-Made-Flesh.
But for now, it is still Advent. The secular world may be already celebrating Christmas in full-force, but as is often the case, the Church takes a more patient approach. For most of Advent we do not have Christmas decorations or flowers, and the music is less elaborate. At our Sunday high masses we have been enjoying Gregorian chant mass settings sung by the choir. It will not be until Christmas that we hear the Kyrie, Sanctus, or Agnus Dei sung with harmony. We also do not have postludes on Sunday mornings, keeping silence instead. Everything is more reserved than usual, for the Christ has not yet been born of Mary.
Nevertheless, we do have occasions for rejoicing. This Sunday is Gaudete Sunday, a day when the liturgical mood lightens up a bit, and the color violet becomes rose. We do not have a full set of rose vestments at St. Mark’s, (we are working on this for the future) but we do have a rose chasuble, and we will have flowers adorning the altar on this Sunday. Gaudete comes from the traditional Introit of the mass - Gaudete in Domino semper – Rejoice in the Lord always – which takes its inspiration from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. It is also on this Sunday that the rose candle is lit on the Advent wreath. We have some rejoicing to do for our salvation is coming nearer to us each week.
But before the Christmas celebrations begin, there is the necessary penitential work to be done. None of us would actually admit that we are wholeheartedly ready for the coming of the Messiah. None of us are so perfect in our current state. All of us need reconciliation and self-reflection. To think otherwise is to be delusional or completely self-centered. We have our own necessary work to do – we are called to self-reflection. Fortunately, we also know that soon the Lord of Grace shall come, and that there is great hope for all of us.
During Advent there is always a renewed emphasis on reconciliation and confession. At St. Mark’s a priest is always available to hear confessions after the Saturday noon mass. During Advent there is the additional opportunity for confession on Friday nights at 5:00 pm prior to Evening Prayer. For some of our parishioners, confession is a regular practice. For some it sounds quite scary. In some ways it is scary. It is never easy to ask for help or counsel. Rest assured that the confessional is a place of grace and not judgment. If there is judgment, it is because the confessor is judging him/herself in a hard manner. The role of the priest is to give comfort, counsel, and the declaration of God’s love and forgiveness. Confessions will also be heard on Christmas Eve in the morning at 9:00 am before Morning Prayer at 9:30 am.
Out of this Advent patience and self-examination, a truly glorious Christmas is born. The reality is that we are in the time of waiting for the baby, but when the baby is born, all happiness breaks loose. This Christmas has many promising celebrations at St. Mark’s. This year we are re-instituting a Lessons and Carols Service. Two years ago we did Advent Lessons and Carols on a Sunday afternoon, and we have had varying forms of a short lessons and carols service on Christmas Eve prior to the Midnight Mass. This year we will enjoy a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Sunday, December 20 at 5:00 pm. The readings have been assigned, the congregation will sing some favorite carols, the choir is practicing faithfully, and a festive reception will follow.
We also have some exciting developments for Christmas Eve. The Christmas Pageant and Family Mass, scheduled for Christmas Eve at 3:00 pm, is progressing nicely, with children from the preschool and the parish participating in the project together. After the pageant there will be a Christmas Cookie reception for all of the worshippers. (This service is being done in place of the 5:00 pm Sung Mass of the past few years which was never as successful as we had hoped.)
As for the St. Mark’s Choir, they will sing for the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at 11:00 pm, as well as on Christmas Day for the Solemn High Mass at 10:00 am. For the prelude at the Midnight Mass, the choir and the clergy will sing the First Sung Matins of Christmas at 10:30 pm around the High Altar. As worshippers arrive, they will enjoy chant, anthems, readings, and carols in the context of Matins. It will set the scene beautifully for the Midnight Mass. For those who come on Christmas Day, you too will not be disappointed. The Christmas Day mass is a celebration with all the bells and smells of a normal St. Mark’s feast day. It should also be mentioned that there are different readings for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and the sermons differ as well. I am always impressed by the sizeable portion of the congregation that attends mass on both the Eve and on the Day of Christmas
Our Advent patience and penitence will continue to grow into Christmas joy. These four weeks of Advent will lead us not into a single day, but into a season of twelve days. We will find ourselves to be counter-cultural again. As everyone else starts taking down their Christmas decorations, we shall keep ours up until the Epiphany on Wednesday, January 6. As is our parish custom, we will celebrate the Epiphany with a high mass at 7:00 pm. On the following Sunday, January 10, at 7:00 pm, we will celebrate the various epiphanies with the Epiphany Evensong and Procession ending with Benediction. The Twelve Days of Christmas will be given their appropriate honor. Advent patience and penitence will lead us into the joys of Christmas and Epiphany. There is so much richness in our Episcopal and Anglo-Catholic traditions. In Hawaii we often hear people say, “lucky we live in Hawaii.” At St. Mark’s we might also say, “lucky we worship at St. Mark’s.”
Father Paul Lillie+