Hallo again to all.
Advent is upon us. The church year has begun. Every year we look forward to an over-the-top high-church liturgy replete with smells and bells, perhaps with chanted Latin and special music. In our mind, for so many years, Advent I has been almost synonymous with full-on liturgy, big attendance, and powerful sermons. We think fondly of past Advent I Sundays spent at All Saints Margaret Street in London, Church of the Advent in Boston, St Mark in Philadelphia, All Saints Wickham Terrace (Brisbane), or Ascension in Chicago. Ahh, the memories, the music, the incense, the drama.
But as all of you know, the Bible says this (Matt 18:20):
Whether you were part of a 1000-person congregation whose liturgical procession included four thurifers, part of an austere service with no music or incense, skipped church entirely, or live in Sydney, it is still Advent, still the new year. Advent arrives whether you welcome it or not. As Full Homely Divinity points out, Advent is increasingly thought of as an oddity or affectation or historical footnote.
Today, this First Sunday of Advent in 2011, we attended a 25-person interactive worship service, not liturgical at all, led by a priest with a doctorate from Harvard assisted by a deacon. Hymns were accompanied by two guitars and a ukulele; one of the guitars was played by the mother of an impossibly cute toddler who walked randomly around the worship space during the entire service.
One stanza into the opening hymn, the ukulele player started singing different words than the rest of us, and halfway through that second stanza we all stopped to compare notes and concluded that the ukulele player should use the words printed in the service leaflet and not in his sheet music. So we started the hymn over, all singing the same words this time.
The Gospel was read by a 10-year-old who stumbled over several of the words and paused just before the end to ask the priest how 'at cockcrow' differs from 'at dawn'. But we were gathered in Jesus' name, and he was there in the midst of us. There was an aura of electric happiness in the air and the wanderings of the beaming toddler seemed entirely ordinary.
The sermon got off to a good start (the parish priest is a superior preacher) but after a few sentences, a young teenager raised her hand and asked a question. The answer to that question prompted several more questions, after which the priest looked around the room to see if anyone else had any questions before he might try to continue. A few minutes later the entire congregation got into a discussion of the assertion that if we don't sing Christmas carols during Advent, then children will never learn them and the tradition of caroling will die. The priest waited for that discussion to die down and then finished his sermon, which was (even with the many interruptions) excellent. But we must confess that, good sermon or not, we've spent more time this afternoon thinking about the question of how children can learn Christmas carols than about the topic of the sermon.
After communion, one of the guitarists pointed out that the final hymn had been botched very badly when included in the service leaflet, and recommended that we find the hymn book from which it had been copied and use that instead. Three teenagers searched the back of the nave and found enough copies of that book to hand out, and after the closing prayer, we sang all of the verses with great joy. At the very end, someone added an 'Alleluia!' after 'Thanks be to God.', which prompted the oldest member of the congregation to ask why there are alleluias in Advent but not Lent.We briefly entertained the thought of staying on for the principal service, a sung eucharist with full vested choir and an amazing 14-year-old Malaysian boy as organist, but upon reflection we realized that this gentle and chaotic service we had just been part of had, in truth, served its primary purpose of dragging us from Pentecost into Advent, of pushing us to reflect on the comings of Christ and to wonder anew what Advent is all about, and of ringing in the new year.
Driving home we tried to sing all of 'Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending' to Helmsley, but couldn't remember enough of the words past '...shall the true Messiah see' and had to stop singing. We bought a container of fresh coffee beans and returned home to write down our adventures.
See you next week. Probably after a sung high mass, but perhaps not.
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