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First Sunday of Advent musings

The liturgical year draws to a close and in the month of November we remember beloved family members and friends who have gone on. The bright sadness of memories, loss and much to be grateful for. Last night we started to prepare for Advent and a new liturgical year, a season rich with beautiful prayers and chants. I remember Fr James of Ealing Abbey preaching on the collect or opening prayer at mass. He worked closely with Fr Daniel McCarthy, of St Benedict's Abbey, Kansas whose book called 'Listen to the Word' contains short articles on many of the collects and two homilies by Fr James.

After rehearsal I glanced at the collect of the First Sunday of Advent and found myself thinking of the various ways Fr Peter, Fr James, Fr Daniel and we in the choir encounter these chants and prayers, both in our studies together and at mass.

It struck me that there is an interesting dynamic in the propers and the collect for the first Sunday of Advent, a subtle shifting between two ways at the same time, like tilting on a fulcrum.

The introit 'Ad te levavi' talks of enemies but lifts the soul to God; the psalmist does not want to be put to shame yet the chant sounds light and trustful.

The words of the collect say, "Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth and meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming", then the Gradual speaks of waiting for the Lord, shifting from energetically running towards Christ to all the peoples waiting for him to come. This is not a passive waiting but active and receptive, for the psalmist petitions the Lord for a closer relationship in the Gradual verse: "Make your ways known to me, O Lord, and teach me your paths."

The Alleluia verse is a line from Psalm 84, "Show us your mercy, O Lord, and grant us your salvation". We pray these words in one of the penitential rites of the mass. Here in the Alleluia we move from praising God to asking for his mercy to praising him again, at once as it were.

I looked in Fr Daniel's 'Listen to the Word' book and found an article on the collect of the First Sunday of Advent. He wrote his study before the most recent English translation, so he uses the translation from a 1974 missal rather than the translation we use today, but the prayer is the same prayer, there is no change to the Latin text which we see in the Gregorian Missal.

Interestingly the headline for his article is 'Between two comings'. He writes: "Bringing our good works to him [Christ] as he approaches, we think not only of his birth, but also of being called to his side when he returns." He summarises by saying, "we are in Christ by baptism and so enjoy the reward along the way to its fullness, as we live between the two comings of Christ".

What an engaging way to begin Advent, with this shifting movement between two different ways. It makes me think of instruments being tuned, of listening for essential sounds in the noise of life. I like the way the chants express the moment between the two comings of Christ, coming long ago, coming to us again, and what it means to be in between.

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