Worship for the Second Sunday in Advent

October 1st, 2011

I am fortunate to have several colleagues on staff who are committed to providing thoughtfully constructed worship in a sanctuary of great beauty with extensive iconography reflecting centuries of the Christian tradition. We believe worship is the core of our congregational life and the bedrock of spiritual formation and find that the tools of the lectionary and the liturgical calendar provide an excellent framework for assisting our community in both praising God and internalizing the rhythms of faith inspired by the life of Jesus Christ.

We meet at least weekly for several hours for the specific purpose of planning our worship. We will have in mind the overall shape of the liturgical year and our current location in that timeline, as well as the specific lectionary and liturgical references for the Sundays under consideration. This provides discipline to our planning and results in a comprehensive exposure to the richness of our tradition.

I like Clifton Black's description of his “posthole strategy” for lectionary analysis. There is a liturgical equivalent that has several layers, which include the entire year, the current season, and the particular Sunday. So when planning for the Second Sunday of Advent we have an awareness that the year is just beginning, a year that starts with pregnancy, climaxes in death and rebirth and continues for reflection on the lessons and meanings found in the life and teachings of Jesus. There will be time enough for consideration of each of the steps along his journey and each prompts its own set of responses from those who have been captured by the truth of the Christian revelation.

This means that during Advent our spiritual agenda includes the attitudes of anticipation, expectation and preparation. Some of us bemoan the great push from the wider cultural context to celebrate Christmas beginning with the day after Thanksgiving. And, of course, many congregants (and clergy?) will want to start singing Christmas carols by the first Sunday of December—which is a great mistake because it delimits the opportunity for personal/communal reflection on the various necessities for God's intervention in our world. As every parent knows, there is a kind of excruciating patience demanded as the date of delivery approaches. Christmas should never arrive like a premature birth.

To emphasize the particularity of this season at Christ Church, we suspend an eight-foot diameter Advent wreath from the five-story vault of our sanctuary at the front of the nave. Walking into our space there can be no doubt that seasons have changed; the sense of expectancy is named in the lighting of the successive candles. Congregants—sometimes entire families—present the symbolism of each candle during the Entrance portion of the service, generally immediately following the processional hymn.

We make good use of the sections of the hymnal entitled, Promised Coming and In Praise of Christ during this timeframe and will choose hymn-texts that support both the season and the theme(s) we've discussed for the particular Sunday, including the theme of the sermon. So, for instance, if we took Clifton's theme, “God's promise of salvation will stand forever,” and consider his list of questions this theme prompts along with the Gospel presentation of John, we see that Hail to the Lord's Anointed fits well, which means that if we've done some advance thinking, we'll use this hymn on this Second Sunday of Advent as opposed to another Sunday.

I'm discovering that the Christ Church community is becoming increasingly sophisticated in its ability to appreciate the themes expressed in worship. I am a strong believer in respecting the intelligence of the congregation to understand layered content that's expressed verbally, visually and musically. It helps for the leaders of worship to make these connections. As a matter of course, worship instructions should be clear and unambiguous, liturgical means should be explained, and the purpose of worship and the facets of the spiritual life should be transparent. While we want our people to engage the mystery of God, we do not want the means to be mysterious.

If we continued with Clifton's emphasis on the Isaiah passage assigned for this Sunday, we might consider using certain excerpts from Handel's Messiah for solo or anthem work. Parts 2, 3, and 4 are textually based on Isaiah 40:1-5 and are well beloved. "Comfort Ye My People," "Ev'ry Valley Shall Be Exalted," and "And the Glory of the Lord," would also make a nice continuous set pre- or post- sermon.

For churches with limited musical means, the psalm, as well as prayer responses, can provide occasion for utilizing a variety of musical skills. So, for instance, the Taize tune, "Prepare the Way of the Lord," which references both the Isaiah and Mark passages, would be an excellent, easily accessible and adaptable psalm refrain, intercessory prayer response, repetitive praise petition, call to worship, or benediction response. (This could be used each of the four Sundays of Advent to lend shape to the season.)

If we plan well, we will have a service that's thematically consistent with the lections, the season and the current circumstance of the congregation. One can easily imagine how Advent 2001 was informed in New York City by the events of September 11, 2001, for instance. The particular emphases of Advent in anticipation of God's intervention provided extraordinary worship and spiritual opportunities in those December days.

There is no predicting what current events will give context to our Advent worship this year, but if we have our liturgical house in order, Advent will afford the opportunity to consider the depths of meaning found in God's promise of salvation no matter the circumstance.

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