Cathy Jenkins reflects on the opportunity we have in Advent to take a ‘Holy Pause’, and gives some practical guidance on how we might plan Advent liturgies that renew and deepen our sense of joyful anticipation as we us prepare—amid all the bustle and activity of the festive season—for ‘the greatest mystery’.
When I was growing up, grace was prayed before every meal. On some occasions, I recall Mum encouraging us to name a blessing from the day. And when we were younger there were always prayers before bed: with my brothers and sister, dad and mum together in one of the bedrooms, we knelt—hands together, eyes closed—and finished the day with God.
On reflection, I realise these daily habits of grace before meals and prayers before bed are simple examples of what Bill Huebsch would call the ‘Holy Pause’, a time in the midst of daily life when we take the time to stop and think about what has gone on in the everyday that ‘holds the potential for Mystery’.1
Perhaps Advent presents this opportunity for us—a Holy Pause at a busy time of the year, when we can reflect on the many blessings God offers in our lives as we prepare for the greatest mystery—God breaking into the world and gracing it with the birth of a tiny baby, the Emmanuel. Perhaps, then, the task for those preparing liturgies in Advent could be focused on how to best create an environment of prayer and worship to accommodate a Holy Pause.
Advent as a Holy Pause
The first task is to reflect on the rich texts for the Advent period. Advent (from the Latin adventus, meaning an arrival or coming) is the beginning of the great story that will unfold through the next liturgical cycle. Throughout the four-week Advent period, we are encouraged to reconnect with the longings of the Jewish people for a messiah and to share with John the urgent work of preparation for the arrival of the greatest prophet and healer. We finish the Advent journey with a reading that focuses more closely on the immediacy of Jesus’ coming—and with his mother, Mary.
On a practical level, Advent also signals the beginning of the liturgical church year and a change of Lectionary cycle—to Year C. This year the focus is the Gospel of Luke, which will be proclaimed on most Sundays.
The first Sunday of Advent provides a canvas upon which to sketch out the key themes and parish activities for the four-week period. Advent always commences on the Sunday nearest to 30 November (this year, Sunday 2 December) and technically concludes on the afternoon of 24 December, with that evening, Christmas Eve, marking the beginning the Christmas season.
It is helpful to read through the entire four-week block of readings and missal texts for Advent. It may seem initially that the gospel readings are disconnected. On the first Sunday of Advent, we start at Chapter 21 of Luke’s gospel (21:25–28, 34–36) with a solemn reading about the ‘end time’. This Sunday is also sometimes associated with the theme of ‘hope’ or ‘God’s people’.
Some of the Advent texts may seem so familiar to us that it is difficult to encounter them afresh, so perhaps when reading the texts, we could observe what it is we hear, see, smell and feel. Group reflection and conversation about the readings might help with this. A starting point for the conversation is to ask what each of the readings is revealing to us about God and Jesus. This first Sunday is rich with imagery—‘There will be signs in the sun and moon and stars’—and the herald of promise and hope is balanced with a warning. The psalm for this week also offers images of God for reflection: God as teacher, as revealer of goodness, as guide, as faithful, and so on. Perhaps this gospel raises questions for us about what it means to be faithful, to ‘stay awake’. Perhaps this first week of Advent offers an invitation for us to think about how we will meet God this Advent. Perhaps it is a reminder to us that Jesus speaks to the awakened heart, and that our hearts can awaken through prayer.
The second Sunday of Advent traditionally turns to the voice of John the Baptist—this Sunday is sometimes associated with the theme of ‘peace’ or with the Old Testament prophets. Promise and hope go hand in hand as we are urged to prepare. On the third Sunday, the gospel’s focus is again on the work of John the Baptist, and in the collect we are reminded to rejoice (this Sunday is associated with joy). Someone is coming: what must we do to prepare our hearts and minds? Then there is a shift on the fourth Sunday to the beginning of Luke’s gospel, with the story of the visit of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, and with the yearnings of the psalmist: ‘let us see your face and we shall be saved’.
After an initial brainstorm of ideas and words, the essence of the group reflection can be distilled into a phrase or an image, and from this starting point the framework for the Advent liturgies can be developed.
Essentially, as Catherine Mary Hilkert observes, all liturgy celebrates ‘the one mystery at the centre of every dogma: the mystery of God with us in human history through Jesus in the power of the Spirit’.2 At no time is this potentially more powerful than during Advent. The great mystery celebrated each Sunday gains a new and powerful momentum during this key period, and the challenge facing liturgy committees is how to renew and deepen this annual phase of joyful waiting and preparation.
Blessings and graces: Reflecting on our context
Reflecting on the texts is the first part of the process, but we then need to hold these texts in creative tension with our context. What does Advent mean for us and for our community? What is happening in the parish at this time, the wider church, the world? What would we like to see happen in our parish during this time? What are the blessings and graces we name and celebrate?
If we can connect the season with our lives, then we can facilitate an opportunity for this connection in our communities. People are busy in the lead-up to the end of the year, for example; so how can our liturgies acknowledge that being busy is part of life at this time of year and that God is found in the busy times? It is important to acknowledge, too, that for some the thought of the festive season will be quietly filling them with anxiety: they may be grieving for the loss of someone or something and unsure of how they will cope within this new, uncharted landscape; or they may be under financial stress and wondering how they can juggle the demands of gift-giving on a limited income. Some members of the community, on the other hand, will be embracing the joy of a season full of companionship and activities.
To prepare for anything, we first need to take stock, taking an inventory of our lives and thinking about all for which we are thankful.
Our task becomes, then, to think about some practical tools to enable those in the community to see the hope of Advent in the everydayness of life.
What might the Holy Pause look like?
The theme being focused on during Advent could be visually depicted in some way. If an Advent wreath is being used, perhaps it could be placed in a prominent position and become a focal point for other prayer opportunities that may be offered in the parish during this period.
Visually, the use of purple is an immediate cue for the community that the time of the year has changed. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) reminds us that violet or purple can be used for Advent, and a rose-coloured candle ‘may be used where it is the practice for the third Sunday’ (sometimes referred to as Gaudete Sunday). There are small ways that the visual cue can help—perhaps print the parish bulletin in a different format or on purple paper, or use purple candles on the wreath.
Regarding flowers, the GIRM notes that ‘During Advent the floral decoration of the altar should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this season, without expressing prematurely the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord’ (§305). Perhaps simple greenery could be used during Advent—a reminder that even though it is not a season of penitence, as in Lent, it is nevertheless a time for preparation, reflection and renewal. The story of Advent could be developed visually each Sunday—this might be a good activity for your children’s liturgy.
Many churches use an Advent wreath as a visual reminder of the Advent period. Add a candle each week to the wreath and think about the most effective way for it to be lit. Adding the candle each week, rather than having the wreath set up at the commencement of the season with the four candles, also reminds people that the weeks are passing. Perhaps the lighting of the candle could be included as part of the penitential act, and a simple chant could be sung to accompany the lighting of the candle (e.g. ‘In the Lord, I’ll be ever thankful’, Gather Australia, 429). One option is to use the refrain of a hymn that will be sung throughout the Advent period and that captures the themes of the readings (e.g. if longing and waiting become the focus, then the refrain to ‘Christ be our Light’, GA 404, or ‘Wait for the Lord’, GA 283, could work). Another option would be to select one hymn and sing a different verse each Sunday to match the theme of the Sunday (e.g. ‘Thereis a longing’ by Bernadette Farrell, or ‘Light one candle’, Together in Song, 286).
It is not uncommon for families to have Advent calendars at home—so perhaps a resource could be provided to assist families in preparing their own Advent wreath as way to encourage some reflection about the season.
The GIRM advises that in Advent the organ and other musical instruments should be used with a ‘moderation that is consistent with the season’s character and does not anticipate the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord’ (§313). The choice of music needs to take into account the various celebrations that may occur during the period. It might be good, for example, to ensure that one of the hymns on the program has a penitential flavour so that it can be used at a penitential service (David Haas’ ‘You Welcome in Me’ from his A Changed Heart collection could be appropriate). It might be the time to introduce a new Mass setting, or to use the setting to the tune of ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’.
You could also explore the use of psalmody during Advent—the psalms are evocative, and for those parishes with limited music resources, the same psalm could be sung throughout Advent.
Perhaps think about the use of silence in the liturgies for Advent. A longer pause after the homily or between each of the readings might be appropriate. Silence can be hard for some people, though, so it is important to prepare the congregation for the period of silence.
The ‘O Antiphons’ also provide scope for liturgy in Advent. Traditionally the O Antiphons have been a part of evening prayer (Vespers) from 17 to 23 December. Each antiphon is built around a name of Christ, drawing on one of his attributes mentioned in Scripture:
- 17 December: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
- 18 December: O Adonai (O Lord)
- 19 December: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
- 20 December: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
- 21 December: O Oriens (O Dayspring)
- 22 December: O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations)
- 23 December: O Emmanuel (O God with us)
These invocations are the basis of the plain-chant hymn ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’. It might be appropriate to use this hymn throughout the four weeks of Advent and choose different verses as befit the readings of the day.
The invocation for the prayers of the faithful could also be changed to reflect the theme being explored for Advent.
What can we do?
If a weekly prayer or reflection group is not realistic at this time of the year, there may be other ways of encouraging prayer and reflection within our community. We could encourage people to see the graced moments in their lives, for instance, by suggesting that as they prepare their gift lists, they pray a prayer of blessing for the person about whom they are thinking—some simple blessings could be prepared for parishioners to take home. Many parishes also take this opportunity to set up a ‘giving tree’ to remind us that not everyone lives as abundantly as we do.
If the parish church is not usually open during the day (except for Mass and liturgies), perhaps it could be opened for an hour each week. Quiet music could be played and parishioners could be encouraged to come and sit awhile.
An opportunity for parishioners to attend a penitential rite could be provided, and the ritual act could be connected to the theme that is being explored for Advent. For example, if light is the theme, then people could light a candle after they have received absolution; if waiting in hope is the theme, then the simple act of washing hands as a sign of preparation and cleansing could be used.
A gathering of the sick and elderly could be organised around a Mass of anointing, followed by a Christmas celebration.
A school and/or parish carol service could be held close to the end of Advent. The wonderful thing about the traditional Christmas carols is that they are relatively well known and easy to sing, so a carol service can be pulled together with minimal effort. If an Advent carol service were to be held on the third Sunday of Advent, it might be appropriate to build the crib as part of the celebration. The ceremony could start with the reading of the gospel of the day.
Carl Sagan, reflecting on learning and the mysteries of the world, famously wrote that ‘Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known’. Advent is the place where we wait and prepare for the incredible: the birth of Jesus. Every year as we listen to the Advent words, pray our advent prayers and sing our advent songs, we are invited once again to prepare—to open our hearts to see Christ’s face more clearly and to know more deeply of the great love God has demonstrated to the world. And the face of this great love is Jesus.
1Bill Huebsch, Grace: God’s Greatest Gift. CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 2009, pp. 20–21.
2Catherine Mary Hilkert, Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination. New York: Continuum 1997, p. 37.