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Hallo again to all, and happy New Year.

It is Advent Sunday. The first day of the church year. Summery in the Southern Hemisphere and wintry in the Northern Hemisphere. Advent is, well, um, er. Hm. Advent is.

In past years in this space we have deep-dived into Advent theology, Advent tradition, Advent mystery, Advent candles, Advent in Wales, and various general ruminations about Advent. What's left to say? We suspect that we could repeat a 15-year-old essay about Advent and no one else would notice. But where's the fun in that?

Today we find ourselves thinking about Advent in society.

Andrea di Vanni, Virgin and Child, ca 1400

Our church has volunteer greeters each week who stand outside near the street to welcome people and help newcomers find the door. There are, in addition, ushers at the doorway who offer additional welcome and hand out any leaflets or booklets or materials to be used in the worship service. And we have friends in the pews, here and there. Today as we approached each set of people, we said heartily 'Happy New Year!'. To a man and woman, they were dumfounded. One person said, 'well, next month'. Another said 'Um, it's December, not January'. Another 'A little early, but thank you.'

During the passing of the peace we tried it again. When greeting each person around us, we said 'Happy New Year'. Almost everyone acted as though it were some kind of trick. This despite the Peace coming after the sermon, during which the preacher mentioned more than once that Advent Sunday was the beginning of the church year. In our parish, at least, it feels as if Advent is just a word and a time to sing carols that nobody knows (save for a few that are well known). The secular calendar dominates. The phrase 'new year' evokes 1 January and not I Advent in the minds of church-goers in 2013. Among people not in the habit of going to church, the word 'Advent' draws a complete blank.

Advent does seem to be one of the earlier victims of the relentless press of 'holiday' commercialization. Many people, even Anglicans, have been raised in an Advent-free culture and don't understand it and don't want to.*

During coffee hour a woman of a certain age had cornered the priest to lecture him on how important it was to sing and play Christmas carols during Advent so that people could learn the words and begin to feel more Christmassy. 'All of the shops and malls are playing Christmas carols now, but without words. 'If we don't sing Christmas carols in church now, how will anyone learn the words?' We suspect that the priest had heard complaints like this before: he smiled and thanked her for the suggestion, carefully failing to agree with her or make any promises.

Every year in Advent we are reminded of just how magnificent Advent music can be. No, it's not Jingle Bells or Frosty the Snowman. Advent music is Veni, veni Emmanuel and Lo! He comes, with clouds descending and Come, thou long expected Jesus and Sleepers, wake! and Let all mortal flesh keep silent and Watchman, tell us of the night and dozens more. It's not Christmas music lite, it's Advent music, and it's deep and mysterious and somber and emotional and (usually) old.

One of the most powerful choral arrangements of anything that we have ever heard was an interwoven medley of the two Advent carols Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silent and Veni, Veni Emmanuel, performed by a 12-voice mixed choir as part of a staging of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. No recording of that spellbinding arrangement by Anna Lackaff appears to be available online, but we found this variant of it, arranged and performed by members of the RC Passionist Community, available on the US Amazon site for US$0.99. If you have friends who don't understand the power of Advent music, and you can't convince them with your favorite carols, try getting them to listen to that arrangement and see what happens.

See you next week. And Happy New Year!

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1 December 2013

*We aren't entirely certain that we understand Advent, but at least we want to, and we keep reading and learning.

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