The Church year starts not with January 1, but with the first Sunday of Advent, a period anticipating the Nativity of the Lord. Our salvation is at hand, and we must prepare for it with a season of joyful anticipation, and yes, some penance as well. While Advent is not as strictly penitential as Lent, it has historically been a time of increased prayer and fasting. The Church has also put many of the most beautiful chants in the entire corpus for both the Mass and Divine Office into this period.
Among these would be the Introit (entrance song) of the Mass of the first Sunday of Advent, “Ad te levavi”, from psalm 24 (25), the text of which reads:
“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, I trust in You; let me not be ashamed; let not my enemies triumph over me. Indeed, let no one who waits on You be ashamed; Let those be ashamed who deal treacherously without cause. Show me your ways, O Lord; Teach me Your paths.”
Liturgical custom places the Alma Redemptoris, a Marian antiphon, at the end of Compline each night during Advent and the Christmas Season, replacing the “Ave Regina Caelorum” which is sung during Ordinary Time and Lent. More will be written about the Alma Redemptoris in a later article.
Later in the Advent season (beginning on December 16 in the Norbertine usage and a day later in the Roman Rite) there are also a series of what are called Major Antiphons, or “O Antiphons” which introduce the Magnificat at Vespers. Each of these antiphons mention different titles of the Lord in Sacred Scripture, and increase anticipation of the imminent birth. At the abbey, the custom of ringing one of the bells in the tower during the chanting of the O Antiphons and Magnificat is maintained, and is a beautiful way of highlighting the eight days immediately preceding Christmas Eve.
It is hoped that these brief reflections will help us to enter more deeply into this season of joyful anticipation so that our participation at Christmas will be more profound, peaceful and fruitful.