Advent 2014: Lessons & Carols

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FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:2)
 
Be the songer.
 
My musical theater teacher used to say that to us. She said that a singer performs a song; a songer makes you feel its meaning.
 
This Christmas, the ORPC chancel choir is preparing to sing (should I say “song”?) from Joseph M Martin’s Festival of Carols. The music book explains this as a contemporary interpretation of the traditional Lessons and Carols service. As our choir director teaches us to shape phrases within each song, to infuse emotion into what we are singing so that its message comes across more powerfully, I remember the lesson to be a songer.
 
It’s not just in music that I often fail to be a songer.
 
As a person who had been living in the land of deep darkness, but then had seen the Light, often I’m just performing this song. I can tell you the words very well – after all, I make my living with words. I can tell you the music relatively ok, too (I’ve learned to hone my ear since I can’t sight-read scores). I can open my eyes wider, lift my eyebrows and cheekbones to look livelier, smile while I sing, or roll my eyes sideways-then-to-the-ceiling, like Lea Salonga, and shut them tight then open slowly, like Lea Michele – I can act (musical theater, remember?). But can I, do I make you feel that a light has dawned?
 
To borrow words from one of the songs from Festival of Carols, do I live as one who is not afraid? Am I of good cheer? Am I ready?
 
It’s the first Sunday of Advent. And Advent, as we know, is a time of waiting, a time of preparation. What better time to learn to be a songer, and not just a singer, of this wonderful Song that we’ve been given?
 
Celtic Advent Carol
(David Angerman/Michael Barrett/Joseph M Martin)
 
Be not afraid, I bring you good news
The Savior is coming in glory to you
He shall be called, “God’s Holy One”.
Will you be ready? Will you be ready?
Will you be ready for Him when He comes?
 
Light the candle, Jesus is coming
Open your hearts, prepare ye the way
Sleepers awake, for soon is the dawning
He will turn night into glorious day,
He will turn night into day.
 
Be of good cheer and put away fear,
The Light now is coming to dry every tear.
Love now with us, God’s perfect Son
Will you be ready? Will you be ready?
Will you be ready for Him when He comes?

SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT

“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests’.” (Luke 2:13-14)    

Why do we sing carols at Christmas?

Growing up Protestant in a predominantly Catholic country, and particularly neighborhood, could be challenging, but not – never – during Advent and at Christmas.

As a child, I enjoyed the best of both worlds during this season. At church the Children’s Choir would rehearse on Saturday mornings, sometimes with the Chancel choir, for the annual Singing Christmas Tree, and our rehearsal snacks included homemade spiced cookies with frosting, that the Women’s Auxiliary made (we had a largely expat church, and enjoyed many American, Australian and European recipes). I had played a child on Santa’s sleigh, a shepherd, and of course an angel throughout my tenure in Children’s Choir.

At home, I trailed my Catholic friends to Simbang Gabi (a nine-day series of masses held either at night or dawn). In our neighborhood, the sacristan would ring a bell before 5am to call the faithful to the chapel. After mass, bibingka (a rice cake) or puto bumbong (another type of rice cake) would be served, often with tsokolate (thick hot chocolate) or salabat (ginger tea). I went for the after-mass breakfasts, and to hang out with my friends, and also because I liked singing Catholic mass songs.

Caroling around the neighborhood brought my two worlds together. My friends acknowledged that I knew the most carols, singing in Children’s Choir at my church. For years they let me choose our music. There was one Filipino carol I absolutely banned from our repertoire: Sa Maybahay ay Aming Bati (We wish your home a Merry Christmas). I thought, at nine years old, that it had the most crass of lyrics:
Ang sanhi po ng pagparito (The reason we’re here)
Hihingi po ng aginaldo (is to ask for Christmas money)
Kung sakaling kami’y perhuwisyo (If we happen to be a bother)
Pasensya na kayo’t kami’y namamasko. (Bear with us, for we’re just Christmassing)

The first carol ever recorded was in celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ (Luke 2:13-14). The practice of caroling (which differentiated from the medieval wassailingof the Anglo-Saxon tradition – which is, I just learned, what this Filipino carol’s “Christmassing” was based on) was to bless neighbors. While wassailing had evolved into a rowdy, materialistic practice, caroling was not meant to be that.

We sing carols to glorify the baby who was born to bring Peace, to give light and life; we sing to share about the Son who was tortured and killed to bring us healing and redemption. I know that the melodies of Christmas carols can be very stirring (that swelling, soaring phrase in O Holy Night never fails to give me chills), but listen! Listen to the words; listen to the singing – “Glory to the newborn King!”

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing 
(Charles Wesley/George Whitefield)

Third verse:
Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
(Isaiah 9:6)

A child is born

Today we had our first combined-choirs rehearsal, with the orchestra and the children (we’d been practicing with the youth choir for some time now, but the little ones joined us today). They really do sound like angels, and our choir director reminded us that it was that sound — the purity of their tone and the lightness of their volume — that we should aim to sing like.

It’s not only for that that she pointed out the children. She also said that they were going to sing from memory, whereas we had our scores in hand. Mind you, this children’s choir sang in melody and harmony sections, unlike the children’s choir I grew up singing with (the most we did was descants).

It brought back fond memories of the children’s choir I worked with at my home church. I was so proud of them because on top of harmony, they had choreography too!

As adults we make excuses for not memorizing our music: we have too much to think of, our memories are not as good as they used to be, we’re already under enough pressure in the “more important” things.

Really, though?

Can you imagine the pressure on the Child who was born to be our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace? Do you think he was a serious, solemn child like Harry Potter? Or was he ever-curious and trusting like Lucy Pevensie? Did he remember that angels announced his birth in song, and if he did, did he find himself humming that tune as he grew up?

It’s easy to think of a newborn baby heralded by singing angels during this season; for non-believers that’s all they see in Nativity scenes, and all they hear from the carols played at the malls. Just as the angelic voices of children remind us to sing as we should, we need to remind the world about the reason that Child was born.

A Child Will Lead the Dawn of Grace
(Garland/Smith)

First & second verses:
A child will lead the dawn of grace
That we may live in Love’s embrace.
May wisdom’s counsel reappear
To calm our souls, dispel our fear.

When peoples have for justice cried
God’s Word assures and sends a Guide.
This child will soon baptize with fire
And every longing heart inspire.

FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT

“The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.’
‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ Then the angel left her.” (Luke 1:35-38)

Jesus put the song in my heart

I’ve been writing my Advent series for several years now, and I always hit a wall just when I’m reaching the home stretch, in the reflection for either the third or fourth Sunday. Well this time, I have a little help from {Road to Christmas}, the Advent study I’ve been following online (check it out: http://www.lovegodgreatly.com), and — thanks to what we’re singing in choir — Lessons & Carols.

One of my favorite songs in our program is Mary’s song, My Soul Doth Magnify The Lord. Can you imagine that out of a possibly-bewildered, pregnant teenager came the beautiful words known as the Magnificat?

Borrowing from my notes from {Road to Christmas}:
I was in high school when I learned that Mary was around 14-15 years old when this happened. Our class was about that same age, so our catechism teacher (I went to a convent school), Sister Rosella, thought it would be good to teach us that even the young can be so mature.

Mary didn’t ask “why me?”; she didn’t bargain “one more year, then I’ll be ready” or “how about so-and-so, because she just got married, no one will think she has loose morals”; she didn’t protest “but people will think I dis-honored Joseph!”. She only asked how, and then humbly allowed the Lord to fulfill His word through her.

The angel said, “For no word from God will ever fail” — and maybe God’s word (the Torah, then) was so deeply ingrained in Mary’s heart that she was comforted by His promises found there…so she didn’t question the angel (anymore) after hearing this.

How deeply ingrained is God’s Word in my heart? Does my life show that I truly believe in the promises He gave in His Word, in the plans and purposes that He has for me?

“And the Word became flesh” — neither He nor His Word will never fail. And so may we, like Mary, say with full confidence, “May Your Word to me be fulfilled”.

My Soul Doth Magnify The Lord
(Joseph M. Martin)

Mary:
My soul doth magnify the Lord
My heart rejoices forevermore
For God has chosen me to sing
A mother’s song to heaven’s King.

Lord, let Thy will in me be done
And I will carry Your treasured One
Emmanuel, the Living Light,
The Prince of Peace, the promised Christ.

Choir:
My soul doth magnify the Lord
My soul rejoices forevermore
With every breath I lift my praise
And rest my spirit in Your embrace.

CHRISTMAS DAY

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). (Matthew 1:23)

You are not alone

On Christmas Day in the US, the Sondheim musical from which the title of this reflection is taken will be screened in cinemas. It’s a musical about some familiar fairy tales; I’ve been singing it since high school. You must know what it is, and after January, you’ll definitely know Into The Woods. The last song, before the Finale, is called You Are Not Alone.

It’s the third Christmas in a row that I haven’t flown home; my first one all by myself (a friend was also stranded here in 2012, and in 2013 another friend was here to look for work — and both years they slept over so I cooked Noche Buena). I’d like to say that I don’t feel alone because I have Immanuel, and I do have Him; but I don’t feel alone, too, because He sent me “family”. On Christmas Eve, my office family, formed in the trenches of work overload, shared a Christmas meal after the office brunch party. On Christmas Day, after church, there’s brunch with my choir sisters. And after that, coffee with a dear friend who is here with her mom for the holidays. And throughout, there’s messaging and calls from my loved ones. Truly, God provides.

Yet even as we know and have God with us, there remains that longing for Him to come (back). We are in an ever-continuing Advent till His second coming; but we are not alone. And so we still sing, “Come, o come, Emmanuel”.

Veni, veni Emmanuel / O come, o come Emmanuel 
(traditional hymn)

(First verse)
Veni, veni Emmanuel!
Captivum solve Israel!
Qui gemit in exilio,
Privatus Dei Filio,
Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel
nascetur per te, Israel.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice ! Rejoice ! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

(Third verse)
O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high,
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice ! Rejoice ! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

May you have a joyous Christmas!