The Church’s liturgical year follows a rhythm of seasons, each of which has a unique character as represented by the prayers and traditions proper to it. How does the music of Advent help us to better enter into the mystery of the season?
By the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles
Words alone cannot fully express the mysteries of the Catholic faith. Sacred music – and indeed, the very act of praying through song – helps us to enter into these mysteries more fully, uniting mind and heart. Through singing during Advent, we come to express more fully the awe and joyful anticipation with which we await the coming of the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ.
Each season of the liturgical year possesses its own special character according to the particular mysteries it represents. The season of Advent is a period of four to five weeks that the Church designates as a sacred time of preparation for the great festivities of Christmas. In Latin, the noun adventus signifies “coming”, and during this season we turn our focus toward the most momentous event in human history – the Incarnation, the coming of the Only-Begotten Son of the Father, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in human flesh.
What could be more awesome than the appearance of the prophesied Emmanuel, at long last "God with us" (Cf. Matt. 1:23)? It is an unfathomable mystery, yet one that unfolded in a quiet, hidden way. The Fathers of the Church tell us that before Our Lady conceived the Christ Child in the flesh, she had already conceived Him in her heart. Here we receive a clue about the true purpose of His coming: He united Himself to a human nature because He desired union with human hearts – “God so loved the world as to give His Only Begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in Him may not perish, but may have life everlasting” (Jn. 3:16). In Advent we prepare our hearts to receive this fullness of life found in Christ. With Our Lady, we attend to the life of Christ growing within us, looking forward to the day when we will enjoy the very light of His countenance (Cf. Ps. 66), knowing even as we are known (1 Cor. 13:12). In the words of one Catholic writer: “Advent is the season of the secret, the secret of the growth of Christ, of Divine Love growing in silence" (The Reed of God, Caryll Houselander "Advent").
To enter, then, into the spirit of Advent is to engage in a project of interior silence. We remove ourselves from the distractions of the world – from our own disordered desires – to bring all our energies inward for the fostering of a hidden life. This is the modality of the God who reveals Himself not in the whirlwind but in the gentle breeze: "The Father has said only one word: that was His Son. And He speaks this Word always in an unending silence. And it is in silence that this Word can be heard by the soul" (Beneath the Gaze of God, Dom Belorgey cf. St. John of the Cross).
But there is a paradox in all this. As the Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper once said, “music and silence are in fact ordered toward one another in a unique way” (Only the Lover Sings, Josef Pieper "Music and Silence"). We see an example of this in the season of Advent. When in stillness of heart the soul sets its gaze upon that Word of infinite Love uttered out of the fullness of the Father’s Heart (Cf. Matt.), it recognizes both its own profound neediness and at the same time the tremendous hope it possesses in Christ Jesus. Thus, a joyous longing naturally wells up and expresses itself in words and, more especially, in song. It was surely in a moment such as this that the Psalmist called for a new song, crying:
“Let all the earth be moved at His presence […]. Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad, let the sea be moved, and the fullness thereof: the fields and all things in them shall be joyful. Then shall all the trees of the woods rejoice before of the Lord, because He cometh” (Ps. 95:9-13).
St. Paul said that all of creation groans under the burden of original sin (Cf. Romans 8:22), but among the creatures of earth, only man is endowed with reason; thus, man alone is capable of expressing the longing for redemption with understanding and love. It is the unique privilege of man – and likewise, his sacred duty – to give voice to the neediness of a world broken by sin. We see an example of this in the beautiful chant hymn, “Rorate Cœli,” whose text is richly imbued with passages from Isaiah. The first three verses beg forgiveness from the Lord for the sins that have brought destruction upon His people and removed them from His friendship. The chorus swells with poignant urgency, then falls to repose in a sweet hopefulness with the prayer: “Ye heavens, drop down the dew from above, and let the clouds rain down the Just.” In the last verse, the Lord responds with a consoling promise of deliverance; here we see together the proper dispositions of a soul preparing for the Redeemer: humility, trust, desire.
The concept of a new song noted in the Psalm above reveals another element of the Advent spirit: since singing is above all an expression of love, to call for a new song is to call for a renewal of love. As one Benedictine monk explained:
“[Song], especially sacred song, is above all a manifestation of love. But this manifestation is not for everyone; it supposes a certain youthful ardor, which is not ashamed to manifest itself in all its naïveté. Who sings more or better than children and young people?…Our Opus Dei was, in its origin, only one of those expressive manifestations which denote a people still young and capable of loving.”
In last book of the New Testament, the Apocalypse of St. John, the Lord reproaches the city of Ephesus because its citizens have lost the zeal of their early love (Cf. Apocalypse 2:4). Every Advent, the Church invites us to examine ourselves in this regard. When we recall the greatness of God’s promises and His infinite mercy, what could be more fitting than to express our loving gratitude in song? “Shout for joy, O daughter of Sion, rejoice greatly, O daughter of Jerusalem, alleluia” (Zach. 9:9, 2nd Antiphon from Vespers from the 1st Sunday of Advent).
Let us then eagerly rouse our souls to receive our loving Messiah: “It is now the hour for us to rise from sleep. For now our salvation is nearer than when we believed” (Romans 13:11-14, Epistle from the 1st Sunday of Advent). Let us stir up and pour out our hearts in song, waiting for the coming of the Savior with holy anticipation – “Behold the Lord shall appear, and shall not lie: if He make delay wait for Him, for He shall come, and shall not tarry, alleluia” (Habacuc 2:3, 3rd antiphon of Vespers from the 3rd Sunday of Advent).