This past Sunday, we held two services of Lessons and Carols, albeit with differences that mark this year of global pandemic.
We've opened a conversation among our worship leaders and clergy about service pacing. There are times, like Palm Sunday, when Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem just begs to joyfully dance forward--All glory, laud, and honor to Thee, Redeemer King!--and Easter Sunday, most of all--Jesus Christ is risen today, alleluia!
If you attended or watched the second service this past Sunday, you know we miscalculated the effect of social distancing, masking and unmasking on the overall service time. Unfortunately, with the continuing spread of illness, we need to keep services confined to a set time in order to sustain a safe worship environment. We cut a few song verses and stepped up the pace! And it was a success, insofar as no content was lost (unlike the first service--first service attenders, listen to David's inspiring words from the 11 o'clock service here); and we maintained safe worship time for all.
I was not a fan of skipping along through Lessons and Carols though. Advent, a time of waiting and preparation felt hurried and frantic to me. (And under the circumstances, it is wonderful we didn't have to make more concessions--we are all very thankful to have maintained the content of the service at least that time).
There's a lot of teaching and literature among churches this time of year about God's choice to enter mankind as a tiny baby. Themes usually center around His great humility. Christ, "rich beyond all splendor, all for love's sake became poor; thrones for a manger, did surrender, sapphire-paved courts for stable floor." There is nothing more vulnerable and helpless than a newborn baby; the irony of the omnipotent Lord of the Universe taking that form is a mystery. There is also a lot of teaching on and singing about adoration. The shepherds and the Magi adored him, they "fell down and worshiped him" (Matthew 2:11). We are to join them in adoration. What exactly does this mean? In colloquial usage, "adore" is usually somewhat flippant ("I adore pecan pie"). Does it simply mean to go to church and sing songs? Not a bad start. We should keep all of God's attributes in our hearts all year, and worship and obey Him accordingly. When we use the liturgical calendar, we especially focus on some specific attributes and works. On Palm Sunday, for example, we welcome Christ, we "fling wide the portals of our hearts;" on Easter, we glorify Him, celebrating the victory of death and all that entails for us; in Advent and Christmas, we meditate on Christ's coming, and we adore Him.
In my mind, these factors relate to how we pace worship during this season. You cannot hurry waiting. You cannot hurry gestation. You cannot hurry a baby, and you cannot hurry his care. And you can't hurry adoration. I think part of the reason Christ came as a vulnerable, humble, baby is that it forces us to take the time to adore Him rightly. Not in a utilitarian way; in a way that shows the utmost deference, love, veneration, desire for closeness.
I remember holding my daughter for the first time immediately after she was born. I was fortunate to hold my first grandson in the hospital shortly after he was born as well. You do not forget those moments. You are just lost in their perfectly precious little faces, all pink and round, warm and soft. The hats! the fingers! the toes!--so tiny! You hold and cuddle and caress in the gentlest and most committed of ways. You have to be all in or it could quite easily result in immediate death of the child. Their little partially formed heads are so fragile, but you can't help caressing them and kissing them, ever so gently.
Whether these associations are what God intended, or have any exegetical merit, I don't know. I do know it helps me understand waiting, adoring, Christ's descent to earth as a tiny baby, and how this informs our adoration of Him. After preparing with care and anticipation, just like an expectant mother, finally the Christmas moment comes, and it is the greatest joy and love imaginable.
One benefit of this amazingly challenging time is that many composers and arrangers are creating solo versions of favorite choral works. I was absolutely elated to find that Morten Lauridsen's ethereally gorgeous setting of O Magnum Mysterium--O great mystery--had been set for solo voice. A recording from the service is below. I think it is a perfect musical manifestation of adoration, with its gentle, loving flow; pregnant pauses; time to enjoy resonances; complex harmonies that underscore the great mystery; a high point that gushes elated worship; a prayerful, holy, conclusion.
We're waiting right now for the world to "go back to normal," if that is even a thing. Luci Shaw, in her essay for the Third Sunday of Advent, writes:
Though the protracted waiting time is often the place of distress, even disillusionment, we are counseled in the book of James to "let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete." Pain, grief, consternation, even despair, need not diminish us. They can augment us by adding to the breadth and depth of our experience, by enriching our spectrum of light and darkness, by keeping us from impulsively jumping into action before the time is ripe, before "the fullness of time." I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.
May God bless you as you wait, and as you adore Him fully.
Cairns, S., et al. God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas. Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA. ©2007.
"Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendor." Text by Frank Houghton (1894-1972) and Marilyn Baker.
O Magnum Mysterium.