One of my favorite aspects of Advent is the unique liturgical music which is sung only once a year during this short season. I am not referring to the Christmas carols which are appropriate (for liturgy) after Advent; indeed there are many marvelous Christmas carols, but for the liturgy they are out of place until the Christmas Vigil on December 24. This is because carols are about the birth of Jesus, and Advent songs are about that which leads up to it. Our waiting for Christmas music is actually heightened by singing Advent hymns which contain different messages for us to ponder. Like all things Advent, they must be savored with attentiveness, both to the lyrics and the melodies that are bursting with meaning and invitation. Of these, a favorite is “People, Look East,” which is set to the tune of an old French carol with a text written for the Advent season.* The melody is lively, combined with lyrics that are filled with anticipation, even excitement, at the coming of Christ. Each verse pairs symbolic ‘titles’ for Jesus, who is Love. I would like to highlight the first verse in which Jesus is referred to as “the Guest.” This image is reflective of how we anticipate the arrival of a beloved guest to our homes. Everything about the occasion is going to be intentionally festive because we are so delighted that our guest will be with us. We set out our best and we prepare to make the guest feel our sincere, warm welcome. We are excited that this guest will bless our home with his or her presence. It is like this with Advent also; we prepare for the coming of Jesus by being attentive with heightened awareness for the time of His arrival. We want Him to find ‘hearth and home’ within our hearts, a place in which He is welcomed. Therefore, we must be ready: "Love, the Guest" will arrive soon.
When we meditate upon Jesus as Guest we must also consider that a guest is with us for a comparatively short time, leaving us all a bit different after the visit. Our hearts warm with the memory of the encounter, and thus, something of the guest remains with us, shaping our lives. Therefore, as we prepare for the Guest’s arrival it is important to make our hearts as hospitable as possible. This is no ordinary guest who is coming: this is the Son of the Most High, Jesus Christ, at whose name every knee in Heaven bends. As the time approached for His coming, everything and everyone in Heaven and on the earth needed to prepare. The Creator of the stars of night readied all to send His Son; the angels made announcements, the Holy Spirit overshadowed the immaculate mother, Mary, who humbly continued to ponder everything once pregnant; Joseph opened his mind and heart, praying about his role as guardian and foster father of such a Son; Magi began a trek to ‘they knew not where’ but went with anticipation nonetheless; independent of one another, an elderly prophet and prophetess, Simeon and Anna, were preparing their hearts for the Messiah. And the faithful children of Israel (even the shepherds) prayed with hopeful expectation that the day would arrive soon. Come, O Lord, come!
Advent invites us to enter into that same anticipatory preparation, filled with building excitement and hopeful expectation. It is important to remember that while He will enter our hearts and be welcomed into our homes, the focus is never upon ourselves alone. Rather, our preparation must always include a focus on what and who is around us. Thus, we prepare Jesus a place by feeding the poor and visiting the lonely, especially those who are infirm or advanced in years who may not be able to get out or who have little or no family to visit them. We prepare a place for Jesus when we reconcile with our brother or sister, neighbor, or friend from whom we have become estranged or have suffered a hurt. We prepare when we offer our time, talent, or treasure to the lowly, the prisoner, and the stranger in our midst. We prepare a place, in other words, when we offer a welcome to Jesus in one of His most distressing disguises, as St. Teresa of Calcutta used to say.
Advent is a time of hopeful expectation even amidst our own ‘bleak midwinter’ because it is the Lord of Love for whom we wait. During Advent we are presented with remembrance of a time in which all seemed desolate and yet the fulfillment of God’s promise was nearing. The faithful retained hope, and indeed, unseen, much was transpiring: Mary was visited by the archangel Gabriel who greeted her with an invitation from the Most High, to which she humbly responded, “Be it done to me;” Elizabeth prayed in wondrous expectation at her ‘impossible’ pregnancy, mute Zechariah, rendered speechless so as to better listen to God’s voice, discovered that nothing was impossible with God, and Joseph prepared to guide the way for Love’s arrival. Equally mysterious, much continues to be possible for us, too, as we long for His return. In this, Advent offers hope: we never give up since Love, the Guest is on the way. So let’s ‘look east,’ preparing with hopeful expectation mingled with joy, and yes, excitement, as we enter into the mysteries of Advent that we might welcome Jesus our Lord into the world anew!
May we embrace 'Advent waiting' patiently, with open doors, open hands, and open hearts! May we welcome Jesus, the Guest by extending our time, talent, and treasure to His people, especially those most in need! May we find the Guest in the midst of our worship, our personal prayer, and our song! And may we imitate Mary as we wait in pregnant, joyful expectation for Jesus to transform our hearts! Let us meet in Advent prayer! Peace! Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!
©Michele L. Catanese
* What is most interesting about Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965), the author of the text of People Look East, is that she also penned the lyrics of Morning Has Broken. I learned this when reading the notes which accompany the song, People Look East (in the original songbook), arranged by Marty Haugen. You can find all of the lyrics and a bit more information at https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/people_look_east.htm
Final note: Astute musicians and lovers of modern Advent hymns will find a few hymn titles embedded in this entry, all intentional, of course.
1. My photo, mountains in Colorado. Where east is, is relative to where we are; but I chose this because of the golden glow of the sun.
2. Icon, Mother of God Waiting in Adoration, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. You can see that Mary is pregnant in this icon. She is pondering, praying, reflecting, adoring. You can find this icon in one of many mediums if you are interested in purchasing it. It can be found at at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/mother-of-god-waiting-in-adoration-248-william-hart-mcnichols.html
(They make wonderful Advent cards, though you can find other images that are suitable for Christmas if you prefer. And remember, I get no remuneration from suggesting these for purchase except the joy of sharing beauty.)
3. Fresco painting, Institution of the Eucharist by Bl. Fra Angelico (1441-42), Basilica di San Marco, Florence, Italy. What better meal than this to depict Jesus at table?
4. Icon, The Mother of God Overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. Those who have read my blog for a while will notice that I feature this icon every Advent. It is one of my all-time favorite icons written by Fr. Bill. You can find it at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-mother-of-god-overshadowed-by-the-holy-spirit-118-william-hart-mcnichols.html
5. Clip Art, Advent Wreath, Week 1. Happy Advent!
Note: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Heart Speaks to Heart