O Advent, O Emmanuel. . .the beginning of a new church year, the season of preparation, light, and hope. . .
Traditionally, Advent is a time of expectation, a season filled with longing and hope that the darkness of our world may soon be replaced with the resplendent light of God among us. Much more than simply a countdown to Christmas Day, Advent serves as a reminder both of the original waiting for the birth of the Messiah and our waiting for Christ’s return in glory. Directing our thoughts to the first coming of Jesus as Savior, born in human form, as well as to His second coming as judge and ruler of all, Advent has celebratory as well as solemn elements. For many throughout history, Advent was (and still is) considered a penitential season much like Lent, complete with fasting. And, as in Lent, the liturgical color is purple (in some traditions, blue is used instead).
Comfort, o comfort my people, says your God. Isaiah 40: 1
Isaiah’s beautiful text is one of the most familiar expressions of the Advent season. How we all long for comfort, particularly in this perplexing world! This morning, we hear two versions of this rather famous Advent tune, which has an interesting history and is claimed by two Protestant denominations. Who would fight about ownership of a hymn tune? Well, as it happens, Lutherans and Presbyterians would. They know a good tune when they see one! In our hymnal, the tune name for Hymn 3 (Comfort, Comfort You My People) is Psalm 42. That’s because it comes from the Genevan Psalter of 1551, where it was paired with Psalm 42 (As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for You, O God. . .). To our hymnal committee’s credit, the original rhythmic configuration of the tune, which has delightful dancelike characteristics, was kept intact. The tune quickly found its way to Germany, where it became associated with several texts, including the funeral hymn Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele (Be joyful, O my soul). To this day German Lutherans know the tune as Freu dich sehr, and it is found by that designation in many organ and choral settings from the Baroque. One of today’s preludes is a set of lovely variations on the tune by Johann Pachelbel (remember him from last week’s postlude?). John Ferguson, organist/composer and professor of music at St. Olaf College, designed a wonderful choral setting of this famous tune, complete with instrumental interludes (ritornelli) that sound as if they came straight out of the Renaissance. Thanks to Kathy Hancock, we even have a piccolo joining the organ in these rhythmically lively passages. Our choir always enjoys singing this delightful anthem. Listen for the way the Pachelbel and Ferguson settings of the tune bring it to life in entirely different ways.
We are absolutely thrilled to have our own gifted trumpeter Jim Ketch playing for us on this first Sunday of Advent. Jim’s presence reminds me how very fortunate we are to have willing volunteers like Jim graciously sharing their enormous talents with us year after year. Thank you, Jim! Many years ago, thanks to Sue McCaughan (who found the resources), Westminster began celebrating the four Sundays of Advent by focusing on particular instruments to mark each Sunday. This gave us a musical coordinating point as well as very effective visual symbolism for the lighting of the Advent wreath, a favorite activity of both children and adults. The first candle, which we light today, is adorned with a small wooden trumpet ornament, and is known as the Herald Candle. Throughout history, due to their unique attention-getting sound, trumpets have heralded the arrival of royalty and have signaled that something important is about to take place. How fitting that–as we begin our Advent journey–the trumpet should herald the coming of our King, soon to be born in a manger, an infant meek and mild, yet King of all. Jim’s prelude is a wonderful suite by Gordon Young (1919-1998), a well known American organist/composer whose works are standard parts of the church repertoire. In the Contempora Suite, Young takes traditional dance movements as they might have appeared in keyboard suites from the Baroque (Bach’s French and English suites are perfect examples) and transforms them using contemporary musical language, including some jazz-infused harmonies.
Who can imagine the start of Advent without the singing of its most iconic hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (Veni Emmanuel)? The longing expressed in this beautiful melody tugs at the heart. This hymn has a colorful history: in the 9th century (or earlier), a series of seven Advent antiphons were sung at Vespers the week prior to Christmas. Each antiphon began with "O" followed by a biblical title for the Messiah, for example, O Emmanuel (O God with us). Around the 12th century, an unknown poet chose five of the "O" antiphons, rearranged them, added a refrain, and produced this hymn. At 8:30 worship, the offertory piece is a haunting arrangement by Flor Peeters (1903-1986), a prolific Flemish composer, organist, and teacher.
Advent worship services at Westminster are different from "worship as usual" in a number of ways. During the entire season, we sing a different Gloria Patri and a different Doxology. This morning, we are adding yet another distinctive feature for the season: a sung Prayer for Illumination. The first verse of Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (perhaps the epitome of a haunting hymn) serves to focus our attention on the eternal mystery surrounding Christ’s birth and all this means for our lives as we hear God’s Word.
Because the start of Advent always coincides with Thanksgiving weekend, our worship emphasis needs to be on both celebrations. So we end today’s services with the singing of one of our most beloved hymns: Now Thank We All Our God. Sturdy and uplifting, this hymn has an incredible history. Written by Martin Rinkart around 1636 near the end of the Thirty Years’ War, the text was designed as a grace to be sung before meals at his own family table. Rinkart (1586-1649) ministered to the village of Eilenburg, Saxony, for 32 years. Around 1637, disease ravished the community and Rinkart buried 4000 of the 8000 people who died (it is difficult to imagine the magnitude of horror as well as the depth of faith exhibited here). The beautiful tune, Nun danket Alle Gott, was written by Johann Crüger in 1648 and was linked with Rinkart’s text early on. The harmonization in our hymnal is adapted from Felix Mendelssohn’s famous Lobgesang (1840), where this hymn serves as a focal point of praise and thanksgiving. To complete our service, the organ postlude is an arrangement of Bach’s famous setting of Now Thank We All Our God as it appears in his Cantata 79 (Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild–God our Lord is Son and Shield). Cantata 79 dates from 1725 & is one of two Bach composed for the Reformation festival.