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Advent: a season of death, judgment, heaven and hell

The ‘little Lent’ is a grown-up season, which mixes fear into the hope

26 November 2016

9:00 AM

26 November 2016

9:00 AM

The first Sunday of Advent is 27 November this year. For those of us who prefer Advent services to Christmas ones, the earlier the better, frankly. I relish the frisson of gloom, foreboding and fear of judgment you get at Advent, alongside the hope. ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ is all very well, but it’s the minor chord at the end of ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ that I crave.

So do thousands of others, it seems. The Advent service at Salisbury Cathedral, for example, is so oversubscribed these days that it’s repeated on three consecutive evenings, starting on the Friday before Advent Sunday. So, tears barely dry from the Remembrance Sunday requiem, you find yourself queuing in the cloisters for an hour and a half on Friday 25 November. The service begins in total darkness and silence. That sets the mood.

More goose-pimples erupt in the naves and transepts of our cathedrals during the Advent service than at any other in the liturgical year. It’s the mixture of bitterness and sweetness that does it, and the extraordinary power of candlelight in darkness. From a single candle lit at the west end of Salisbury Cathedral after that initial pitch-darkness, 1,300 more are lit one by one, as the service progresses. By comparison with all this subtle, dark beauty, the unmitigated jollity of a Christmas carol service can seem rather gaudy and primary-coloured.

French children are taught that Advent is ‘le petit Carême’, ‘little Lent’: a time for sober reflection in preparation for both the birth of Christ and the Second Coming. I like that. Westminster Abbey’s Advent service this year is going to kick off with a plainsong setting of the Dies Irae. That’s the spirit! Give us wrath and gloom. Don’t let us get our hopes up too quickly. Make us earn ‘Lo! he comes with clouds descending’. And even that hymn, if you examine it closely rather than just belting it out, warns us that we’ll probably be wailing when the Second Coming happens.


Listen to Ysenda Maxtone Graham on the joys of Advent


What do the clergy think about Advent versus Christmas? I get the sense that eight out of ten priests prefer it. Canon Bruce Ruddock at Peterborough Cathedral says, ‘Advent is my favourite season. It’s so counter-cultural. Our Advent procession is in sharp contrast to what’s going on at M&S down the road.’ Clergy like the fact that the Advent service is for mature people who don’t need lulling with ‘Away in a Manger’. The Peterborough service begins in candlelight; the choir processes from ‘station to station’, singing Advent antiphons and hymns of gradually increasing cheer until, when ‘Lo! he comes’ strikes up, the cathedral explodes in clouds of incense. ‘It gives us an opportunity to pause and reflect on the wonder,’ Ruddock says. ‘I think perhaps we’re in danger of losing our sense of wonder.’

Dr John Hall, the dean of Westminster, reminds me that the themes of Advent are death, judgment, heaven and hell. Yes, even hell. ‘A lot of people in the church have completely abandoned the idea of hell, but I can’t do that. There’s a popular belief that “It’ll all be all right.” What we’re missing, perhaps, is a sense of humanity under judgment.’ Today’s highly liturgically aware clergy and directors of music aim to remind us of the judgment side of things, even if the harshest reminders are couched in Latin to soften the blow.

What with all this dread and fear, as well as the watching, waiting and hoping, there’s far more scope for interesting music at Advent than at Christmas. Bits of Revelation can be thrown in; bits of the Garden of Eden and Cain and Abel, bits of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, bits of the Song of Solomon, pre-Raphaelite poems about expectant mothers. Top contemporary composers such as Ruth Byrchmore, James Long, Philip Moore and Matthew Martin have been inspired by the Advent mood to write some of their best pieces, and these will be sung in cathedrals and Oxbridge chapels over this weekend.

The timetable has flipped around in the past 50 years. Christmas used to begin on Christmas Day: now it pretty well ends then. Last year, 27,000 people attended services in Westminster Abbey between Advent Sunday and 23 December, and another 8,000 on the 24th and 25th. Then, in the public mind at least, it’s all over. The depressing sight of dead Christmas trees thrown out on to the pavement on Boxing Day is normal and expected. People give up drinking in January, which seems wrong. The winter months, when we most need cheer, become the gloomiest time.

With Christmas expanding backwards into the early days of December, we must be careful to preserve the distinctive atmosphere of Advent. No ‘Once in Royal’ allowed until you’ve had your fill of ‘O come, O come, Adonaï’. (Which no one is quite sure how to pronounce.)


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