Music in Worship

Advent Week 1: Hope
Sunday, November 28

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying)
BWV 140, J.S. Bach (1685-1750)

Our Advent journey begins with an account of the story of Simeon and Anna, who were waiting in hopeful anticipation to meet the one who will be the promised Messiah. Waiting for something about which you care deeply is not a passive process. The waiting of Simeon and Anna, which may have been patient, hopeful, or fearful, would certainly have been full of expectations for the fulfillment of the prophesies about the birth of the one who would be God’s light on earth. Waiting can be an internalized experience, one that often requires silence, and deep listening to the thoughts of our heart. Even in silence, we are actively listening for signs of hope, or recognition, just as Simeon and Anna waited.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence describes the human journey of Christ for whom we are waiting: the baby who has the hopes of the world upon his shoulders, the man who died on the cross, and the King of Kings, ruler of heaven and earth, who waits for us in the Kingdom of Heaven. The music progresses from somber, intimate, and gentle, building in texture and dynamics to exclamatory and triumphant. The selection Wachet auf is an invitation to awaken; to cease waiting and to prepare ourselves to greet the arrival of Jesus. Bach begins this call to worship with a fanfare appropriate to a King, signified by the use of brass instruments and regal, majestic, dotted rhythms, which in Baroque music are often associated with the arrival of royalty. The chorale melody soaring above the excited choral underpinnings is calm and steady, reflective of the sureness in our knowledge of the arrival of Christ.

Advent Week 2: Peace
Sunday, December 5

“Et in terra pax” (from Gloria)
Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741)

John the Baptist’s call for people to live differently is a call to peace achieved through action. He challenges people to look at their lives and seek spiritual fulfillment through service and generosity. In “Et in terra pax” from Gloria, the phrase “and peace on earth, good will toward men” could be interpreted as cheerful and optimistic. The words seem joyful; peace and goodwill toward all! Vivaldi instead illustrates the earthly challenges of working toward a labored and hard-won peace through his use of a minor key, plodding accompaniment, and a chromatically ascending line in the soprano reflective of a relentless striving. This musical setting is representative of an alternative interpretation of this text; we strive toward peace within ourselves and work toward peace in our communities and in the world, but it is not an easy path.

Advent Week 3: Joy
Sunday, December 12

Night of Silence, Daniel Kantor

On this third Sunday of Advent, we recall the story of Mary’s visit to her cousin, Elizabeth. Although Mary’s current life circumstances were less than ideal as an unmarried, pregnant woman in first century Judean society, joy abounds in this story. As soon as Mary arrives and greets her cousin, Elizabeth’s unborn son, John the Baptist, leaps for joy in the womb; the unborn child recognizes that he is in Christ’s presence. Then, Mary rejoices with her own song of praise, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), in response to the Baptist’s sign of joy and in understanding her role within God’s salvific plan. What does joy look like? A child giggling and jumping of excitement comes to mind. Perhaps, it’s a smile your face charms when reminiscing a sweet memory. Joy can look exuberant, but it can also look modest. And, as we see in our story, genuine joy can even be found and expressed amidst great uncertainty.

Daniel Kantor’s seemingly simple music and poetry of Night of Silence depicts an anticipatory, Advent joy. Full of poetic imagery, the song is analogous to the Advent story. Kantor first paints a cold, endless, and frozen winterscape, where darkened souls are waiting for the light and love of Christ. Although the winter seems unending, there is the hope of a rose sleeping in the frozen snow that will bloom to echo a glorious sunrise. The rose will bloom; Christ will come, and soon the dawn will break.

Advent Week 4: Love
Sunday, December 19

Christmas Music Sunday

Featuring Sanctuary Choir and Festival Orchestra

Love came down at Christmas, Alan Bullard, (b. 1947)
Christmas Day, Gustav Holst, (1874 – 1934)
What Sweeter Music, John Rutter, (b. 1945)

Today is a celebration of what we have been waiting for: the word become flesh, the light shining in the darkness, the presence of God in human form! In Rosetti’s beautiful text, Love came down at Christmas, the poet describes the birth of God’s love and light on earth in the person of the Christ child. Love is fulfillment and the gift for which we have been waiting. Holst’s setting of Christmas Day presents a compilation of beloved carols that describe the joyful events of the birth of Jesus, sharing the message, “celebrate and rejoice, for God’s light will shine on earth.” And, as the carol proclaims, “what sweeter music can we bring, than a carol for to sing, the birth of this, our heavenly King?” We celebrate the coming of Jesus by bringing our voices together in joyful song.

Friday, December 24

Service of Lessons and Carols

The beginning of the Lessons and Carols service has a relatively recent history. Although carols have been around since ancient times, they were banned for a time, and their inclusion in church began in the late 1800s. Carols began as lively secular music that accompanied dancing.

In 1880, people in Truro, England were upset over the decision to build a new cathedral. Those whose land was on the location of the planned church had lost their homes, and their old church had been destroyed. In order to help smooth over bad feelings and bring some joy to the inhabitants, Bishop Edward White Benson held a Christmas Eve service in an unheated, temporary shed. He structured this service as nine lessons and carols. Drawing on a widespread renewed interest in carols, he combined carols, hymns, and readings. Carols had traditionally been sung door to door. They had been banned from church until 1875, only five years prior. By using carols in the Christmas Eve service that would have been used in a more secular manner elsewhere this night, Bishop Benson effectively discouraged going to a pub on Christmas Eve. This inaugural service included our beloved carols The First Nowell and Good Christian Men Rejoice.

From its lowly beginnings in a shed, the service of the Lessons and Carols steadily spread. In 1918, Dean Eric Milner-White brought Lessons and Carols to Kings College, Cambridge. He wanted a special service to grieve those lost in the war and to attract people back to church whose faith had been shaken by World War I. In 1928, Kings College began broadcasting the service, and it has now become a widespread tradition. The first Lessons and Carols service in the US, in 1916, at Brown University in Rhode Island, actually predates Kings College by two years.

Our carols, congregational hymns, and anthems are thoughtfully paired with each reading to reflect on its unique message. As you contemplate the texts, also consider the music itself as a form of prayer and praise.

This heartwarming service culminates with the singing of Silent Night. From the single flame of the Christ Candle, the Light of Christ is spread out into the congregation one by one. From that one light, the entire church glows with warm radiance.