December 28 is actually day four of our 12-day celebration of Christmastide, and the liturgies in this parish on this day are wonderfully distinctive. Our 8 a.m. liturgy is Morning Prayer and the Holy Eucharist (Rite One), where the beautiful canticles Venite, Magnificat (Song of Mary), and Benedictus Dominus Deus (Song of Zechariah) will be used. Our 10:30 a.m. service is a Christmas Festival of Lessons and Carols with Holy Eucharist, where once again the miraculous story of Jesus’ birth will be told again in scripture and in song.
The Christmas celebration continues this evening at “A Celtic Christmas,” our regular 5:30 p.m. Eucharistic liturgy with Celtic music. This evening will include reflective but extraordinary folk music for the season, including a number of Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Appalachian carols: Wexford Carol, Greensleeves, Christ Child Lullaby, That Night in Bethlehem, Righteous Joseph, Nos Galan (the original carol from which we get “Deck the halls”) and a beautiful Arnold Cooke vocal setting of the charming poem “A Cradle Song” by 20th-century Irish novelist, poet, playwright and children’s author Padraic Colum (1881-1972).
Our Advent celebration comes to a close on Sunday, Dec. 21 with Luke’s Gospel account of the Annunciation. After the annunciation by the angel Gabriel, Mary proclaims her song of praise, the Magnificat canticle, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” which is actually found a few verses past today’s Gospel citation. Marian hymns are, thus, appropriate for today.
During Communion this morning, we sang David Hurd’s tune Julion with the text “Ye who claim the faith of Jesus.” Hurd beautifully sets the Latin Magnificat words as a descant over the last stanza, the words of which are Mary’s song in English. This great tune is a prime example of the contemporary hymn “explosion” of composers worldwide in the 1970s and 1980s, writing beautiful unison tunes with through-composed accompaniments for organ or piano.
As Mary’s song of praise is also one of the canticles traditionally used for Choral Evensong, the Magnificat will also be sung by the Motet Choir this afternoon in a new setting by Carson Cooman, composer-in-residence of Harvard Memorial Church. Cooman’s musical interpretation of this more traditional translation, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” alternates between grand choral statements and introspective, mysterious solo choral and organ melodies. Both ideas capture Mary’s emotions, shouts of praise to God along with the quiet strength and uncertainty of a young woman who now knows that she will bear the Son of God.
The Third Sunday of Advent (Dec. 14) is also known as Gaudete Sunday, which is a reference to the proper Introit verse for the day, Gaudete in Domino semper (“Rejoice in the Lord always”) from Philippians 4. In the Roman rite, where purple is traditionally used for Advent and Lent, pink was a lightened hue of purple, symbolic of “lifting the veil” on the penitence and fasting to prepare for Christmas and Easter. Gaudete Sunday is a counterpart to Laetare Sunday, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, also called Mid-Lent or Refreshment Sunday. Though the Anglican rite calls for Sarum blue in Advent, the pink candle of the Advent wreath is retained.
The pink candle is also in keeping with joyous anticipation of the Lord’s coming, which is a central theme of today’s lectionary readings. John the Baptist is “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: make straight the way of the Lord.” While anthems are often verbatim settings of scripture, none are more iconic than the Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) anthem “This is the record of John.” It is a classic example of the English verse anthem and was composed at the request of Gibbons’ friend William Laud (1573-1645), Archbishop of Canterbury and an alumnus and later president of St. John’s College, Oxford, where the anthem was first performed.
Why do we use Sarum Blue for Advent? Before the Protestant Reformation and the publication of the original 1549 Book of Common Prayer, the Roman rite was obviously the only rite used in the Church throughout the world. However, as early as the 11th century, St. Osmund, Bishop of Salisbury, had established a variation of the rite for use in Salisbury Cathedral and in that diocese. In this Sarum Rite (“Sarum” being the Latin word for “Salisbury”), blue was used for the season of Advent. Blue is the color historically associated with the Virgin Mary (thus often called “Marian blue” as well as “Sarum blue”), and blue symbolized the night sky or darkness, an image present in many of the scriptures used in Advent season.
The Advent lectionary readings also highlight the expectancy of Mary and our preparation for the Christ Child. Mostly notable is the Sunday on which the Magnificat (Mary’s Song of Praise) is the appointed Gospel, which is usually Advent III or Advent IV depending upon the lectionary year. Therefore, in the post-Reformation Anglican Church, and because of its usage in the Sarum Rite, Sarum blue is the most appropriate color for Episcopal usage. Contemporary liturgists and especially our 1979 Book of Common Prayer lift up this preparatory nature of Advent instead of the penitential nature most associated with Lent. While purple emphasizes the penitence as appropriate for the Lenten season, Sarum blue emphasizes our expectation in the Advent season as we await, with Mary, the coming of the Christ Child.