It’s about time.
Of course, it is not entirely about time. Worship points to eternity beyond time. In the Eucharist we are given a foretaste of the feast to come. In both Eucharist and the daily office we are gathered with others who have been called and baptized, thus bringing us into the communion of saints beyond time. But worship, a liminal experience if ever there was one, is also set in time and deliberately marks time.
It’s about time. In the cycle of the daily office we mark the dawning of a new day, the transition from day to night, and the end of our waking hours.
It’s about time. In the cycle of the Christian year we move from expectation to incarnation to manifestation to baptism to transfiguration to preparation to passion to resurrection to ascension to ministry to Christ the King and back to expectation.
It’s about time, and Holy Name Cathedral for two decades has made that point emphatically and dramatically through Sunday Vespers during Advent.
As everyone knows, Sunday afternoons in late November and the entire month of December are times for football and basketball. This is most certainly true in hundreds of homes throughout the archdiocese (and in our synod). It is also true in several bars within walking distance of the cathedral. On some Sundays it is true at Soldier Field and the United Center, both a short drive from Holy Name.
In the face of what everyone knows, Holy Name tells anyone who comes in the door at the appointed hour that it is time for prayer, praise and reflection as day gives way to night.
As everyone knows, late November places us well into the Christmas season. As soon as the Halloween candies are cleared from the shelves, supermarkets announce the coming of the winter solstice with images of a plump man in a red suit, festive lights, decorated stockings, and styrofoam snowmen. Department stores and other temples of consumerism have decorations in place while we can still walk around in shirtsleeves. Advertisements in the newspaper and television give us a continuous countdown to December 25. The stores just east of the cathedral on Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile and a short ride south on State Street all proclaim clearly that it is Christmas time.
In the face of what everyone knows, Holy Name tells anyone who comes in the door at the appointed hour that it is Advent.
Lesson Number One
Although it is not the purpose of worship, when we are faithful to our tradition we boldly proclaim something that contradicts what the world has to say. I am reminded of a retired pastor who told me that during the Rite of Baptism he had the congregation turn toward the door of the church to proclaim their renunciation of all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises. It was, he said, a way of saying, “In your face, Satan!” He said this, of course, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, but it does underscore the point that part of being the church (ecclesia, a people called apart) is to present an alternative. One might better say that it is to present the alternative.
To what is it an alternative? We have begun to answer that question by outlining some of what is being proclaimed in the world encircling the cathedral. This raises serious questions about the efficacy of a variety of methods being used in some Christian communities to increase numbers and attract new members. One of the most important features of Advent Vespers at Holy Name, in the opinion of this worshipper, is the clear, invitational, non-confrontational, and unapologetic declaration of the Gospel in the midst of blaring secular messages to the contrary.
It’s about time. While the world outside is filled with people rushing by, the cathedral offers a slower pace. At 3:30 in the afternoon an organist begins a concert that provides a half-hour prelude to the Vesper office. Sometimes the organist is on the cathedral staff. More often the organist is a guest from a Roman Catholic, Episcopal, or Lutheran parish.
Following the concert/prelude, the Evening Office begins after a few minutes of reflective silence. From the west entrance to the cathedral, the choir (the Schola Sine Nomine) intones a setting of one of the “O Antiphons.” A procession, led by thurifer, crucifer and torchbearers and followed by the Schola, reader and presiding cleric, slowly moves through the nave to the chancel. This sets the pace for all that follows. The presider does not rush from collect to collect. The intonation of salutations invites the assembly into deliberate and thoughtful responses. There are silences between readings. There are silences between the chanted psalms. The movements of the worship leaders are not rushed. This is time to worship, and we take our time in offering prayer and praise. We take the time to reflect. The silence is a part of the dynamic. It is not something to be overcome with activity or noise.
Lesson Number Two
One can’t come in from a world of frenzy and immediately be transformed into that liminal state between time and eternity. We need help in the transition. I can imagine some readers doing a double take when reading about a half-hour prelude. While I do not discount the esthetic value of the concerts (they have all been exquisite), there is a great functionality as well. After the concert we are prepared to worship and to spend our time doing so with deliberation. The choice of familiar hymn tunes as the theme of the concerts works wonders toward that end.
Silence can also be a powerful preparation for worship, but is more difficult to come by. In many of our congregations it is difficult to find time to pray prior to worship. It is as if the noise from the outside world travels in with us. Conventions of politeness at least make us calm down while the organist plays, particularly if it is billed as a concert. My fear is that were it simply called a prelude, the conversations would not stop at the church doors. Whatever the mechanism, I am grateful for this long period of preparation for worship.
Lesson Number Two has a Part B: When the assembly is prepared for worship, there is no need to do anything but let the worship happen. Announcements would be out of place. Audible rubrics (“Stand, as you are able,” and the like) would be intrusive. The common experience of exploring the nuances of a familiar theme under the guidance of a gifted musician, the setting within this magnificent structure, and our simply being together have prepared us to act as one assembly united by our faith and our waiting in expectation of the One who came to us, who comes to us in Word and sacrament, and who will come again at the end of all the ages. When we are at the intersection of time and eternity, we need to avoid rushing. Indeed, we should embrace the calm moments of silence that provide powerful and meditative connective tissue to our worship experience.
It’s about time. Part of the temporal order has to do with continuity, and that is clearly recognized by the shape of the liturgy (to appropriate Dom Gregory Dix’s title) through which we offer our prayer and praise. The ancient words of the psalms, the familiar hymns, and the venerable prayers as well as the general structure of Vespers place us in a long line of Christian worshippers who have thus given voice to the apostolic faith for centuries. We take from, perpetuate, and pass on a powerful expression of our trust in God’s grace to save us in the fullness of time. Indeed, we respond to a recitation of each of the “O Antiphons” with the ancient words “Come and save us.” This was the prayer of Christians in all times and places, and was indeed the prayer of ancient Israel. It is the prayer of Christians and Jews today and tomorrow. We are part of history and the future, as well as eternity.
It’s about time. Part of the temporal order has to do with change, and we recognize that in both the Christian year and the daily office. Holy Name does an excellent job of reminding us of that in the music we hear and sing. The prelude/concert is usually an eclectic selection of variations on a hymn used for that Sunday, such as Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Savior of the Nations, Come) or Conditor Alme Siderum (Creator of the Stars of Night). The compositions range from pre-Bach to early 21st Century. When we sing those particular hymns, we use the ninth-century setting of the latter and the sixteenth-century setting of the former.
For the first few years my wife and I attended Advent Vespers at Holy Name (we began in 1995), we sang the familiar 15th century setting of “O Come, O Come Immanuel” as the recessional each Sunday. Like many, we thought of this as the quintessential tune for this wonderful paraphrase of the “O Antiphons.” One year, as I looked at the worship materials prior to the concert/prelude, I read the music for the recessional. The words were familiar but it was a tune unknown to me. I had to struggle to get myself in the mood for worship. What had they done with my beloved Veni? The organ music soothed me a bit and the psalms were a calming influence. Then came the moment I dreaded. The organ sounded a continuous drone tone. The thurifer led the recessional. Members of the Schola carried a variety of percussion instruments with them, ranging from a pat-a-pan drum to a triangle, and then I heard and sang for the first time the 1988 setting by Donald Pearson. I am a liturgical traditional curmudgeon to the core, but I was practically dancing in the pew with joy by the end of the setting I did not want to hear.
Lesson Number Three
Tradition and contemporaneousness are not mutually exclusive categories. They are expressions of change and continuity. We are historical creatures, both individually and collectively. We fix ourselves in time constantly by reference to what has happened (or at least how we remember it happening), what we anticipate happening (in fear or hope), and what has remained constant (to either our relief or consternation). Change and continuity are held together in our experience. The 21st century variations on venerable hymns in the concert/prelude often cause me to consider ancient texts in new ways. The new setting does not change the meaning, but it suggests nuances I may never have considered without this stimulus. Most likely, those nuances were considered centuries ago, perhaps by a worshipper in the 15th century who heard my beloved Veni for the first time.
It’s about time. But it is also about place and people. This insight came from my wife, Jeannine, as we talked about my writing this piece.
Holy Name is located in an area where residents of the Gold Coast and the homeless come into contact. We have seen both at Advent Vespers. One of my fondest memories is from the second or third year we attended. A man hugging his portable stereo, and wearing several layers of clothing (perhaps his entire wardrobe), sat in the front row. At the recessional, the man turned on his stereo and joined the chancel party following right behind the presiding cleric. This did not draw looks of disapproval, nor did it draw laughter. Somehow it seemed right. I saw the man talking to the priest who had presided following Vespers. I have no idea what they were talking about or what ultimately happened to him. I hope he received the help he needed. I do know that he was clearly considered a part of the assembly and not an intruder. I wonder if that would have happened if we had not come in and calmed down before we worshipped.
Holy Name is a public place with a ministry to the city and beyond. During Advent Vespers it is also a public place with an ecumenical ministry. I was told about this annual worship opportunity by a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor I had met in cyberspace through an e-mail list. I met him face to face for the first time at the cathedral on Advent I, 1995. He and his wife have become our good friends over the last decade. Through him we met other LC-MS pastors, who also attend. We have seen both pastors and laypeople from around our synod in attendance, as well as a number of Anglican friends. We often break bread with some of our friends following Vespers, and the fellowship is enhanced by our shared experience at the cathedral.
The most important lesson I have derived from Advent Vespers at Holy Name Cathedral is the simple axiom that if we worship faithfully and proclaim our message clearly and honestly we will in fact present an alternative to the world. We will tell the world what time it is, and who is Lord over that time. Are these experiences we could have in congregations of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod? Yes, and I have seen excellent examples of each of these lessons in various Lutheran congregations. But as I write this with Advent 2005 right around the corner, my thoughts go to the place where I have seen all of the lessons exemplified four late Sunday afternoons a year for a decade. That combination and longevity of practice, it seems to me, is a powerful witness and something valuable we can learn from our Roman Catholic siblings in Christ.