The professional choir at the parish I served as a curate would perform Handel’s Messiah every Advent season in preparation for Christmas. I remember my first Advent the Rector told me about the performance with excitement and anticipation, and all I could remember thinking was, “Oh goodness! Do I have to go??” Do not get me wrong, I love Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus as much as anyone, but that piece is only about three-four minutes long and is only half-way into the three hours of singing that Handel’s Messiah takes.
Music is a funny thing in Advent. Most people I know do not really love Advent music. Unlike familiar, comforting, endearing Christmas carols, Advent hymns are “discordant, unsung, and unpopular in many congregations.”[i] I have known choir members whose skin crawls from Advent music, and I imagine many of you are here today because the idea of a whole service dedicated to Advent Lessons and Carols which we will hear at 10:00 am sounds like torture.
The problem might be that Advent music is not as catchy as Christmas music. But I think there is a deeper truth to our distaste of Advent music – the music of Advent points to the themes of Advent: of apocalyptic demands to be alert, doing acts of righteousness to be right with God; of judgment so stringent to be compared to a refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap; of needing to bear fruit worthy of repentance so as not to be chopped down and thrown into the fire; and of bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. None of that is quite as catchy as a holly, jolly Christmas.
Perhaps the issue is that Advent music tries to do the same thing scripture does. In 1741, Handel wrote to a friend of his masterpiece Messiah, “‘I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wished to make them better.’ The composer challenges [us] to go beyond feeling good to doing good.”[ii] The same was true for Malachi. Malachi brings good news of a messenger coming to prepare the way of the Lord and that we will be purified enough that our offerings will be pleasing to the Lord as they once were before. But Malachi also reveals the fearful questions of the people. “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” These are just two of the twenty-two questions in the fifty-five verses of Malachi.[iii] But they are questions we all ask if we are paying attention during Advent.
I remember when I was pregnant with my first child, women poured pregnancy stories over me. There was a camaraderie the stories built, the state of our friendship altered because we were now going to share something we had not before. But what I always noticed about those stories is whenever I expressed my nervousness about labor, their eyes darted away, and they made wistful promises about how anything resembling pain would be forgotten. The more their warm countenances shifted to wary, twitchiness, the more I suspected labor would be a painful reality.
The same is true for the infant we will welcome once again on December 24th. As much as “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” as much as we sing of “Silent Nights,” and as much as we dream of “Joy to the World,” that celebration comes with a price – the price of preparation, of messengers making the way for joy, of fire burning away all that corrupts us. Advent is not about entertaining us, but, much like Handel hoped, is to make us just and better, so that we might be right with God when that infant is placed in the arms of the Church. Advent is for Malachis, for Zechariahs, the father of that coming messenger, and for you and for me. And although we may feel like we have been refined enough to last a lifetime in this last year and a half, the refining God is doing now in each of us means, as one scholar assures, we will “be re-formed in God’s image, and [that re-forming] will be good. No matter how we feel about it now. No matter what we may be afraid of now. When we are refined and purified as God promises, it will be good.”[iv] As much as we may dread that awful music or loathe those heavy, foreboding stories of Advent, we do so together, knowing that we are being refined tougher, so that, together as a community, we will welcome the Christ Child with open, ready arms. Amen.
[i] Deborah A. Block, “Pastoral Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 30.
[ii] Block, 30.
[iii] Block, 26.
[iv] Seth Moland-Kovash, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 31.