Darkness to Light: A Liturgy of Advent Lessons and Carols
Throughout history, the Church kept Advent as a season of great solemnity - a time in which to meditate upon the ultimate issues of death, judgement, hell and heaven. Advent, though, was also a time of great rejoicing, for Christ would come, not only as Judge, but also as Savior, and would usher in the Kingdom of God. Advent, therefore, provided a vivid preparation for Christmas. Processions from west to east, and the use of lights, spoke of the Church's hope in the coming of Christ - the Light of the world - to banish sin and darkness. Antiphons were sung, calling upon God to deliver his people, and readings from the Old Testament were seen as pointing to the fulfillment of God's purposes in Jesus.
This liturgy has been developed and used at the great English Cathedral at Salisbury and at St. James Cathedral in Chicago, and aims to recapture that Advent longing and hope. It begins in darkness with the Advent Responsory, in which Christ's coming is announced. The Blessing of Light follows, and, as the Service unfolds, the cathedral is transformed from darkness to light.
The service is structured around the Great "O" Antiphons of Advent, sung by the choir and congregation. (O Come, O Come Emmanuel.) These were sung originally as Antiphons to the Magnificat at the Evening Office from 17th to 23rd December, and have provided a rich source of devotional imagery in Advent. The readings and music serve to complement the Antiphons, and help us reflect on the theme of the Christ who comes to judge and save his people. The Service ends in confident hope in the One who is to come. Even so come, Lord Jesus.
The scripture readings come in pairs. An Old Testament reading speaks of God’s promise. A New Testament reading proclaims how the promise is being fulfilled in Christ. And each pair is accented by a musical response that heightens our expectation and invites our trust in the coming of Christ as Judge and Redeemer.
Notes on the Darkness to Light Liturgy
The Introduction, Bidding Prayer, and three of the Closing Prayers were specially composed for this service by The Reverend Canon Jeremy Davies, Precentor of Salisbury Cathedral (retired). We are most grateful to Canon Davies for his contributions to this liturgy.
The organ voluntaries were specially commissioned and composed for this service. Dr. Stuart Forster is Organist and Choirmaster of Christ Church, Cambridge on the campus of Harvard University.
The use of candles is a traditional and very beautiful practice in Advent carol services. Individuals are encouraged to devise and develop the use of candles in various ways throughout the church: distributing candles to the congregation, candlelight processions by the choir, etc. It is suggested that the service begin in semi-darkness, then, as each "O" Antiphon is sung, another candle (or candles) is lighted on the altar (office lights), or in the front of the church. As the candle is lighted, the lights in the church come up incrementally, until by the end of the service, the church is fully lit. Darkness to Light.
The Scripture passages provided serve as foils to one another – parallels from the Old and New Testaments, prophesy and fulfillment. They should be read from two different places by two equally fine readers: for example, the Old Testament lesson from the lectern, the New Testament from the pulpit. There are any number of biblical translations available and the local ministers and musicians will know best which to use in the context of their worship. Readers should be chosen from among the very best public orators so that the scriptures are clearly and cogently conveyed to the listener.
No effort has been made to unify the language of the service (traditional vs. contemporary). Rather, the original language of the author has been maintained. The language can be carefully adapted if one wishes to employ uniformity of language in the context of the liturgy.
The Invitatory Anthem is optional and may be sung instead as an anthem preceding the Vesper Responsory towards the close of the service. If this done, an offering can be received at that time. It is perfectly appropriate to include one or the other (or both) of these anthems.
The carols and anthems suggested for this liturgy are suggestions only. There is a great wealth of alternate choices to be found on the St. James Music Press website.