October 9, 2023

Preparing for Advent and Christmas

4 Advent intentions


Of all the planning tasks that befall a liturgical musician, I find planning the seasons of Advent and Christmas to be the most difficult. Yes, Lent is longer, Triduum more complex, and the Easter season a marathon of additional celebrations, sacraments and devotions. But the planning of Advent and Christmas bears the additional weight of expectations (everyone has a hymn or song they can’t live without), cultural context (secular radio playing “Here Comes Santa Claus” immediately after Halloween) and limited liturgical catechesis within our faith community (are we sure we fully know what we’re celebrating?).

The Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Calendar (1969) offers this description of the Advent season:

“Advent has a twofold character, for it is a time of preparation for the Solemnities of Christmas, in which the First Coming of the Son of God to humanity is remembered, and likewise a time when, by remembrance of this, minds and hearts are led to look forward to Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. For these two reasons, Advent is a period of devout and expectant delight. (paragraph 39)”

We celebrate the First Coming and anticipate the Second Coming. We remember and we look forward. Because of our remembrance, we prepare our minds and hearts for what comes next. Yes, it’s the lead-up to the “most wonderful time of the year,” but it’s a lead-up that must mean something. It’s liturgy with consequence

As you plan the liturgies for Advent and Christmas, the Church challenges us to keep this twofold character in mind. Sometimes we can get stuck on one side or the other, which serves to distort our experience of this holy time. It’s easy to program “what we’ve always done,” or succumb to a planning strategy directed more by nostalgia than by “devout and expectant delight.” At the same time, it would also be problematic to choose only unfamiliar new hymns, responses and acclamations that are unconnected to our established experience and understanding of the season. Instead, strive to plan the season not as a series of disconnected Sundays but as an entire whole, one continuous journey of remembrance and anticipation, from the First Sunday of Advent through the Solemnity of the Epiphany and the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

Here are a few considerations to get you started, followed by a list of recommended resources. By no means is this an exhaustive list, and it goes without saying that these won’t all work for everybody. Consider what might be possible, challenge yourself and your assumptions, and make the appropriate decisions for your community.

We as a universal Church journey through this sacred time together. Consider planning liturgies that unify the celebration and preparation across your entire community. If you don’t already, consider using the same music selections at all of the weekend Masses. Including musical (and cultural, linguistic, stylistic, etc.) elements from all the various expressions in your community might be challenging, but it can also be unifying.

As a season of preparation, the texts of Advent are rich with imagery, symbolism and references. This is especially true in the appointed Entrance and Communion Antiphons. If you don’t already, consider singing the antiphons throughout the Advent and Christmas season. These can be cantor-led and precede the gathering hymn and hymn for the Communion procession, and there are plenty of musical settings that provide your community with options that fit the skills and tastes of your music ministry.

Look at the seasonal repertoire available to you, both for hymns/songs and choral anthems. Plan on the seasonal favorites, especially the pieces that mean a lot to your community’s celebration. But in addition to these, what new repertoire can you add to emphasize the other half of the twofold character, namely anticipation and ongoing preparation? You might consider a new piece, or you might consider singing new and appropriate texts to familiar tunes. Certainly you need to take a pastoral approach to introducing new music, but don’t sell your congregation short. They can sing! Also, if you opt to include a choral anthem or other choir-led piece, consider projecting/printing the text so the congregation and understand and pray upon what is being sung. If we cannot understand the text, it doesn’t fully impact our preparation.

For those pieces which are familiar seasonal stalwarts, consider your arrangements and instrumentation in order to add new energies and to maintain an element of freshness. There are countless instrument parts available, as well as piano and organ accompaniments with unique harmonizations, introductions and interludes. While we might plan hymns that “we’ve always done,” it doesn’t mean we need to sing or play them in the same way. How might the musical approach to familiar repertoire be planned so we can draw our community into a deeper understanding of what is being sung?

Finally, don’t forget to name and claim what you’re doing. Use the paragraph above at liturgy committee meetings, rehearsals or meetings of the environment committee. Share it at a staff meeting. Post it in your office or choir space. Print it in the bulletin! Don’t let anyone assume there isn’t intent behind the planning you’ve done; let them in on the richness of our liturgical year. In doing so, you’ll help provide ample opportunities for the liturgical experience of this holy time to bear fruit in the seasons to come.

As you begin your planning process, here are several essential resources to help you get started: