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Music In Advent

It's the first Sunday of Advent. In our house that means the Christmas music has started. From now through Epiphany, for hours each day, via cassette tapes, compact discs and mp3 files, Christmas music will resound.A New England Christmas and Feliz Navidad in Santa Fe. Handel's Messiah in both its traditional and soulful interpretations. Gregorian chant and rap. Blues and bluegrass. Jazz and country. Rock and gospel. Celtic and soul. Calypso and New Age. Acoustic, electric and electronic. Sacred and secular. Vocal, instrumental and a capella. Devotional, sensual and materialistic.Yo-Yo Ma and Bootsy Collins. Doris Day and the Ramones (on the same CD!). The McGarrigles and the Nevilles. Gene Autry and Mahalia Jackson. Ella Fitzgerald and James Taylor. The London Symphony Orchestra and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Angelique Kidjo and Papa Wemba. Sting and Enya. The St. Louis Jesuits and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Run-DMC and Rascal Flatts. Bing Crosby and Ray Charles. The Pussycat Dolls and the Indigo Girls. Dolly Parton and Stevie Wonder. Cee-Lo Green and the Muppets. And more. So much more.

Over the years I've had friends with stricter liturgical sensibilities who disapproved (and continue to disapprove). They have a point. It's hard to make any kind of argument---let alone a good one---that "Santa Baby" or "Back Door Santa" or The Singing Dogs' version of "Jingle Bells" helps one enter more deeply into the season of Advent or the mystery of the Incarnation.I'm even somewhat sympathetic to the argument that all this Christmas music (even the religious music) has the effect of preempting the beauty and importance of the waiting season of Advent.In the end however, I come down on the side of a former pastor who had a genius for searching out and finding ways in which God was hidden within---and active in---popular culture and daily life. This priest once opened a homily by talking about his love for the great German hymn, "Silent Night". He went on to say that there's not much we can be sure of regarding the first Christmas Eve, but we can say with great certainty that it was not a silent night. In fact, the stories we have from Matthew and Luke's gospels indicate it was a noisy, disjointed, bewildering and overwhelming night.Not unlike many of our own days and nights as we prepare to celebrate Christmas. Not unlike the weeks and days leading up to the births of those we know and love.It's with that perspective---that God is here, somewhere, in the midst of the noise and clutter and busyness of Advent in the city (and in our house), waiting to be born, waiting "in the midst of our circumstance" to be discovered and revealed in a new way---that I'll try to hear the music this Advent, listening over and over to the old, familiar songs in the hopes of discovering something new.What Advent traditions do you have?

About the Author

Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 



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The Puritans didn't celebrate Christmas at all, if I recall correctly. Cutting it off on Dec. 25, when it is just getting started, is as "Puritanical" as not celebrating until it gets here.And yeah, yeah, yeah about the Purification. It takes us at least until then to get the decorations down. Meanwhile, our neighbors are celebrating Valentine's Day, which pretty soon (just watch) will be the unofficial start of the Christmas shopping season.

Luke, Advent is when anything is possible.The Messiah could come and prove that our God is an awesome God who aint just putting on the ritz. He can do awesome things to islamofascistliberalrightwingillegal agendaists, who bug us.Or maybe He will pour oodles of gold into our eagerly upturned hands, and well all have a McMansion on an island for the times when we owe it to ourselves to get away.Or maybe He will simply take away the aches and pains, distractions and vexations of ordinary living.We would like to have him do that sort of thing. And so we turn our eyes to Hollywood or Omaha or Washington (certainly not some foreign city) to wait for the Messiah.Maybe He will deliver something even better than we can imagine.Maybe He will surprise us. (In fact, we know he will.)We live in an era of carts before horses pay before performance, sex before marriage and victory celebrations before the final gun, which is what you get when you O.D. on The Little Drummer Boy during Advent. Wait. Prepare. Bring something Christmas.Anything is possible when He comes. But He hasnt come this time. Yet.

I listen to "December" by George Winston on the 1st Sunday of Advent (and many more times throughout the month). There is something .... perfect .... about the recording for me -- not a false note, I guess. We save the Messiah for Christmas Day, which usually involves a long drive from NJ to western PA or OH.

What Advent traditions do you have?Yesterday I got out the Christmas albums. My faves: Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, the Vienna Boys Choir.I got down the Christmas music and put it on the piano. My faves: O Holy Night, White Christmas, Chestnuts Roasting on an Open FIre, Huron Carol, Stille Nacht, Ihr Kinderlein Kommet, etc.I got out the tapes of Cuddles and Tuckie. I'll listen while I make cookies.

Off topic, with apologies:In today's online version of National Catholic Reporter John Allen reports on Pope Benedict's "De Caritate ministranda." "Whispers in the Loggia" gives the full text of this document.I fear that this document will have a regrettable impact on the work of Catholic Relief Services. Can some knowledgeable person take a look at this document and say whether tere is reason to be disturbed by it?

Bernard --It looks to me as if there are two movements operating here. First, the recent reorganization of the financial activities within the Vatican, especially "the Vatican Bank" which has received so much negative press recently because of the dirty deallings it became involved in (even including some Mafia money-laundering!). This probably inspired the Pope to make it clear that there must be transparency in charitable institutions, that donations must go to what the donor says they are for, and that the bishops must oversee these organizations in some detail and make their information available to the Vatican -- even down to employees "profiles". Sounds ominous, but such a big job I don't see how the Church can afford the man-power. Second, it seems as though the Vatican, in discovering the digital world, now realizes that it is possible to organize the Church in even more exquisite detail than before. See the new spying system at the Vatican itself -- from January on the powers that be will be able to tell just who is literally where in Vatican City. Even bishops will have to check in electronically! See LaStampa's recent "Big Brother Comes to the Vatican". I don't think all this is what the Good Lord had in mind. (Itneeds its own thread.)

Anne, you just gave me an idea! Imagine that, as part of confirmation (or of baptism), people have an implant placed under their skin that would measure their physical characteristics and report to their pastor or bishop. For example, it could check compliance with the rule "no orgasm outside marriage". The state of the implant could be verified before giving people communion; and it could be reset at confession. It might also detect pregnancies and perhaps, some day, abortions. Such a device may be too expensive to be practical quite yet, but it could become inexpensive soon! Then, just think of the possibilities! Finally the Catholic church would be able to weed out the chaff and reserve sacraments to the worthy or the repentant!

Bernard - do you have specific concerns about how Catholic Relief Services would be affected by this new law? At first reading, I don't see that it will have much of an impact, but perhaps it would. Could the Catholic Campaign for Human Development also be a target here? I think/hope not, but perhaps this motu proprio could be used to further regulate its activities.Luke, sorry for the digression. Regarding your topic: I'm generally in favor of Christmas music in all its splendid variety, including at this time of year, but I do think we also need to consciously work to "carve out" some specifically Advent awareness and spirituality during this time of year. It's not particularly easy for most of us to make a connection between "Santa Baby" or "I'm gettin' nuttin' for Christmas" with the end-times Gospel that was read in church yesterday.

I do think we also need to consciously work to carve out some specifically Advent awareness and spirituality during this time of year. ------Something a bit pecksniffian about that, imho. Why not let people enjoy the season instead of trying to turn it into something frightening? Don't sing amusing songs! Concentrate instead on the "end-times."

Gerelyn, Speaking for myself, I will enjoy the Christmas season. Which runs from Dec. 24 through Jan. 6. Forever. When English kings enjoyed their stag hunts and scrumptious feasts, they were said to be "keeping Christmas," and they did it in the run-up to Twelfth Night, a/k/a Epiphany. The season we are now in, Advent, is a time of preparation for Christmas. I know Americans love to cut to the chase, but it's weird to pitch out the Christmas tree on Dec. 25 and being glad "that's over." Which is what happens to so many of the unprepared.

Its the first Sunday of Advent. In our house that means the Christmas music has started. In our house everything, including music, will happen at the latest time possible such that everything is ready for Christmas Eve. Right now it's pretty much business as usual. A little more than usual thinking about charitable giving; some vague awareness that we should try to remember to read the church bulletin to find the information about some reconciliation service that is presumably announced in there; and some early shopping for those who will need to have their gifts shipped overseas. Otherwise, nada. Music and music sheets will come out around the 23rd, and we'll have a domestic rehearsal sometime on the 23rd or morning of the 24th.In the meantime, there are already plenty of Christmas music and decorations on the streets and in the subway. We don't need more of that at home, or we risk getting sick of it before Christmas.

My Advent musical choice -- very ordinary, but not ordinarily surpassable: J.S. Bach BWV 140, the cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme. Here's Nikolaus Harnoncourt's version:'d like to have posted John Eliot Gardiner's version but it's not in the public domain.And when you get on to real Christmas music (that is, Christmas to Epiphany (which falls on January 6, though Rome doesn't quite get it), try JSB's Christmas Oratorio, actually 6 cantatas for the season.

Nicholas - I also love Wachet auf.Regarding the church calendar and Christmas: Epiphany still falls on January 6. And it is classified, iirc, as a holy day of obligation. Thus, if you happen to live in a place that celebrates Epiphany every year on January 6 (see the sentence immediately following this one for more clarification on this), you would be expected to go to church that day, per the rules and regs for holy days of obligation. However, the church calendar also extends permission for Epiphany to be moved to whatever Sunday falls between January 2nd and 8th, and that is what we do in the US. (Many dioceses in the US do the same for Ascension). Whether there are countries or dioceses that celebrate Epiphany every year on the 6th, regardless of the day of the week on which it falls, I don't know. The church actually provides a set of readings and liturgical texts for the 2nd Sunday of Christmas Season for such places (the Gospel is the opening passage from John, "In the beginning was the Word ..."), but we never get to use them in the US. As it happens, in 2013, the Sunday between January 2nd and 8th falls on January 6th, so it all kind of works out this year :-)I also want to note that, according to the church calendar, Christmas season ends, not on Epiphany, but on the Baptism of the Lord, which most years is celebrated the Sunday after Epiphany (except when Epiphany is celebrated on January 8th, in which case Baptism of the Lord is the Monday immediately following). Christmas season, to be technical, begins on Evening Prayer I of Christmas Day, which would be prayed on the evening of December 24th but is considered properly part of Christmas Day, until Evening Prayer II of Baptism of the Lord. Of course, y'all can start and stop celebrating whenever you want :-)

In days of yore, we were told Christmas ended with the feast of the Purification (aka Candlemas, aka Presentation of the Lord), February 2nd. Has the Church now shortened the season? were told to leave our Christmas decorations up until then. (And to watch Bishop Sheen instead of Milton Berle.) (And not to add the Magi to the crib scene until Epiphany.)The Puritanical urge to dampen and truncate the celebration is powerful.

Glad you've found a way to celebrate the season that is to your taste, Tom. And I liked your reference to the Stag. (Sometimes I think the Puritans' hatred of Christmas had to do with all the uncomfortable reminders of the Old Ones, including Cernunnos the Stag, Lord of the Hunt. All the mythic/pagan memories come to the fore when we sing and dance carols, deck the halls, hang the mistletoe, eat the feast, drink the spirits, light the candles, etc., etc.)The Song of AmerginI am a stag of seven tines,I am a wide flood on a plain,I am a wind on the deep waters,I am a shining tear of the sun,I am a hawk on a cliff,I am fair among flowers,I am a god who sets the head afire with smoke.I am a battle waging spear,I am a salmon in the pool,I am a hill of poetry,I am a ruthless boar,I am a threatening noise of the sea,I am a wave of the sea,Who but I knows the secrets of the unhewn dolmen ?--

Jim Pauwels:Perhaps I have misunderstood you. The Solemnity of the Epiphany was never a holy day in the United States (unlike the Ascension), no matter on what day of the week it fell. Moving it to the Sunday between 2 and 8 January, however awkward, at least ensures a fitting observance of this principal feast that was denied to it previously in the US.Yes, 6 January is still a holy day in many countries no matter the day of the week on which it falls (including Vatican City State.) I put out my Nativity figures late on Christmas Eve, leaving a place for the Christ Child until after returning from Midnight Mass. I keep them in place till 13 January, which was the Octave Day of Epiphany before the Calendar reform.I once heard Cardinal AUGUSTIN Mayer, OSB, then Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship (mid-1980s), express his complete disagreement with the post-conciliar reform of the Calendar. With one exception! He was happy that St. Monica had been transferred from 4 May to 27 August, the day before the feast of St. Augustine.

Interesting item from the venerable Catholic Encyclopedia on the observance of Epiphany in the good old days. (A shame the traditionalists don't demand a return to this custom.)"Abraham Ecchelensis (Labbe, II, 402) quotes the Constitutions of the Alexandrian Church for a dies Nativitatis et Epiphani in Nican times; Epiphanius (Hr., li, ed. Dindorf, 1860, II, 483) quotes an extraordinary semi-Gnostic ceremony at Alexandria in which, on the night of 5-6 January, a cross-stamped Kor was carried in procession round a crypt, to the chant, "Today at this hour Kor gave birth to the Eternal"; John Cassian records in his "Collations" (X, 2 in P.L., XLIX, 820), written 418-427, that the Egyptian monasteries still observe the "ancient custom".(The article on Christmas is full of delicious tidbits: see, e.g., kindsfuss in The Yule Log section.)

"Perhaps I have misunderstood you. The Solemnity of the Epiphany was never a holy day in the United States (unlike the Ascension), no matter on what day of the week it fell. "Hi, John Page, I probably didn't say it quite right. Here is what the Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar says:"7. Where the Solemnities of the Epiphany, the Ascension and the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ are not observed as Holydays of Obligation, they should be assigned to a Sunday as their proper day in this manner:"a) The Epiphany is assigned to the Sunday that falls between January 2 and January 8"I'm (ahem) not (quite) old enough to have personally experienced the pre-post-Conciliar calendar - well, not old enough for it to have made an impression on me. I have no doubt Gerelyn is right about when Christmas season used to end. I've also heard that Advent was six weeks, there was an octave after Pentecost - all sorts of things were different. I just Googled "Septuagesima" to bone up on what that was all about. I find the existing calendar confusing enough; I expect the old one was not for the timid-hearted!

Bernard Dauenhauer, Catholic Relief Services is a member of Caritas Internationalis. You may recall that there was some uproar when the Vatican refused to give its nihil obstat for the re-election of Lesley-Anne Knight to a second term as head of Caritas Internationlis. "Romes reasons for failing to allow the re-appointment of Dr Knight as secretary general of the Rome-based Caritas Internationalis (CI) are given in a letter sent by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB, to all the worlds episcopal conferences and seen this week by The Tablet.During the next four years particular attention will have to be given to harmonising the theological dimension of Caritas Internationalis with its role as an organisation operating on the international stage, says the three-page letter, dated 15 February. It adds that the next CI secretary general will also need to improve communication with other ecclesial bodies and with the dicasteries of the Roman Curia that have an interest in CI activities. The letter, which was also sent to bishops responsible for the 165 member charities that make up the Caritas confederation, further indicates that the advocacy work that Caritas carries out must be better coordinated in strict cooperation with the Holy See, which is specifically competent in this regard new Motu Proprio may be part of this program which seems to be directed at strengthening the "Catholic identity" of charities and exercising greater control over them

John H. and Bernard --I read somewhere that the Vatican is even concerned that Caritas has some common projects with groups like the Gates Foundation, but the Vatican disapproves of some of the Gates projects. Hmm. (If I'm not mistaken Melinda Gates is/was Catholic.) Wonder what this portends. Surely it must be OK to join in projects with people with whom we disagree in some ways. Or does the Vatican think it should boss them too?

I like the way Dennis Morgan sings "O Little Town of Bethlehem" in Christmas in Connecticut.(And the way Bing Crosby sings "White Christmas" in Holiday Inn.)(And the way the boys choir sings in The Bishop's Wife.)

Gerelyn - I agree on all three points - especially Dennis Morgan. I never particularly cared for that song until I heard that rendition. It's an underrated film in general.

That much Christmas music for that much time would give my diabetes a severe sugar overload.

I have a ton of Christmas CDs and digital downloads; I enjoy them all- from Johnny Cash to Lady Gaga. But, honestly, my favorite songs are a couple of anti-Christmas songs: The Pogues' Fairytale of New York and The Kinks' Father Christmas. It's not that I'm a Grinch, I just really like the music.

I've downloaded some really nice Advent instrumentals for getting into the season, but I listen to Trans Siberian Orchestra any chance I get. When we get to Christmas Eve, it's time for Boney M, discovered by my wife's family in Massachusetts. I introduced Hanukkah Blessings by Barenaked Ladies to a Jewish co-worker, who has used it to open his family's holy days at home.

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