This is the first Advent season that I've ever really paid attention to, probably in my whole life. The quieting down of farmwork, and shorter days, have made our time in chapel all the more prominent these last few weeks, and for that I'm glad.
Sister Helena Marie, a classically trained musician, has created beautiful "Offices" for us to observe throughout the four weeks of Advent. (An Office is a daily prayer, sometimes called the "Liturgy of the Hours" or the "Divine Office". They are sung at specific times of day; for example, Lauds in the morning, Vespers in the evening.)
For our Advent worship, there are specially chosen psalms and antiphons (short phrases sung before and after a psalm, that frame the text), and carefully selected hymns. For some reason, I find this manner of worship inviting and meditative, which is so wonderful after all my angst about religion and "The Church" for the last twenty-five years! Perhaps it has something to do with the intimate nature of the setting; we are usually only six or eight gathered in this little chapel. The energy that's created when people are fully present and focused is a powerful thing.
We sing "plainsong," which is an ancient musical form developed in the early days of the church, and then elaborated over time. Lines are sung in a kind of chanting style, sticking mostly to just a few notes, except for a few more elaborate phrases that mark feast days and special occasions in the church calendar.
And of course, the Advent candles. Four, each one symbolizing one of the weeks of Advent; we light one the first week, two the second week, and so on.
Advent is a time of waiting, preparing. I think I was particularly primed for Advent, as I had been desiring to turn inward, to start meditating...and to stop checking websites for job listings and real estate, to stop pushing and prying and trying to force the future to make itself plain to me ahead of time. I'm thankful for the prayerful practices of Advent that have helped me turn away from my frenetic worry and toward stillness.
Here at the farm, the Sisters have a different way of anticipating Christmas. We don't decorate the tree, or sing carols until Christmas Eve. We don't exchange presents. There's no stress of dealing with shopping crowds or harried clerks. Instead, the Sisters contemplate and pray. The snow adds a blanket of quiet beauty to the woods. The winter solstice, happening today, marks another turn, and we begin another anticipation, of the longer days that are coming, of the seeds that will need to be started and nurtured, and eventually planted . . . but I'm learning that you have to go easy when anticipating--if you're not careful, you can throw yourself all the way clear to May, with the advent of asparagus and green leafy lettuces. In the same way, most of us spend so many weeks anticipating Christmas, to the point of focusing all our attention on the 25th, on gifts and feasts, and lists and shipping . . . and speeding past the pleasure and fullness that comes from waiting, from savoring the present moment.
The time for celebrating is coming, but it's not here yet. We are still in the darkness, our faces illuminated by candlelight, singing, and waiting.