Holden Evening Prayer
26 Nov 2020
If you have been part of the church for any length of time, you will know that the season of Advent is roughly about 4 weeks long, the season of Christmas only 12 days. Add to this the fact that for popular culture Christmas starts some time after Halloween and ends on Christmas Day, you see why we want to spend more time singing Christmas carols and less time singing Advent hymns.
In this pastors have always acted as fun suckers, since pastors maintain the distinction between Advent and Christmas and forbid the tree to be put up too soon.
And so it seems strange to record our first Holden Evening Prayer service for Advent before it’s even Advent (which starts on Saturday evening).
But then, faith is not primarily about rules, not even liturgical ones.
I have heard a fair bit on the radio about when it’s OK to start playing Christmas music (not as a liturgical observance or faith practice) and about people’s plans for Christmas decorations.
Except for those who hate Christmas music at any time (the kind played in stores and on the radio), there is a consensus that the season of Christmas will bring us comfort and joy and the sooner we can bring it on the better.
Even I now have a decoration in my office that I plan to place in my window.
But exactly this longing for comfort in the midst of these unusual times takes us back to Advent. Advent is a time of waiting, and we are waiting like never before!
Perhaps my favourite Advent hymn is O Savior, Rend the Heavens Wide. You remember it from the Lutheran Book of Worship.
The first reading for this coming Sunday starts with just this verse, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” It is the prayer of a people that is powerless and under oppression. It is a prayer addressed to a God who can intervene to make life peaceable and joyous. Life without God is unbearable. … Life with God can be completely transformed, writes Walter Brueggemann.1
Add to this the tune of the hymn that expresses this deep longing.
1. O Saviour, rend the heavens wide;
Come down, come down with mighty stride;
Unlock the gates, the doors break down;
Unbar the way to heaven’s crown.
4. O Fount of hope, how long, low long?
When will You come with comfort strong?
O come, O come, Your throne forego;
Console us in our vale of woe.
5. O Morning Star, O radiant Sun,
When will our hearts behold Your dawn?
O Sun, arise; without Your light
We grope in gloom and dark of night.
The writer of the hymn is Friedrich Spee, a German Jesuit who lived in the early 17th century. From what I have learned about Spee, he understood this longing and lived it.
Spee died at age 44 after having contracted the plague by caring for sick soldiers. Four years before his death he anonymously published a treatise against witch trials and torture, republished under his own name two years later. His sister-in-law was burned as a witch the same year his treatise was first published.
All this tells me that Spee had a deep longing for the world the be righted, for injustice, war, and disease to end. And so the verses he penned are not only biblical but also reflect his own experience and longing.
That is why I love this hymn, for during the ever shorter days of December, during the days of Covid, lack of contact, we long for light and salvation.
If Christmas music and decorations give you comfort, wonderful. But our help is in the Lord who made heaven and earth.
The paradox of our liturgical observance is that the One we are waiting for is already here.
Thanks be to God.
1Texts for Preaching, A Lectionary Commentary based on the NRSV – Year B, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox 1993, page 2