In this year in which so much was unfamiliar it is comforting that some Advent traditions have remained more or less the same.
I especially like attending Evensong in Canterbury Cathedral at the end of Advent and some years ago the introduction from December 17th of a harpist playing at the end of the service was so popular that she was asked to play as well as people were arriving. There’s something truly heavenly about the sight and sound of a harp, and its gentle, ethereal, beautifully haunting harmonies seem to lend themselves particularly to this darkest time of year. Like much else, Evensong is different to how it usually is. Instead of the more intimate choir it’s being held in the vast nave, which of course allows for social distancing. And there are no male choristers at this end of Advent because one of the boys caught Covid and they’re all self-isolating! Instead there was a very competent adult quartet one day, and another day we were treated to six members of the girls’ choir who, as usual, sang like angels. And I was utterly thrilled on arrival to see that we twenty or so brave souls spread out in the nave had the pleasure once again of the harp.
Yes, it was a year in which we didn’t do a lot of the things we usually do, and we didn’t see a lot of the people we usually see, and we didn’t go to a lot of the places we usually go to. I have particularly missed my end of Advent visit to the monastery. For at least twenty years I’ve gone every December for a couple of nights around about the time of the winter solstice and it’s a wonderful time to be immersed in the monastic liturgy. Those days from December 17th – 23rd are marked by the ‘O Antiphons’ which are like little daily markers on the final lead-in to Christmas. An antiphon is a short phrase which is sung before and after each psalm in the monastic office, and from December 17th there is a special antiphon for the Magnificat, that hymn of praise sung by Mary after being visited by the angel: ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord…’ Each of those antiphons is a title given to Christ in the scriptures, and those titles are found in the well-known Advent hymn ’O Come O Come Emmanuel’. They are: O Wisdom, O Adonai, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O King of the Nations, and finally on December 23rd O Emmanuel, meaning God is with us.
Old rock fans will recognise that this blog is named after Led Zeppelin’s Live album of 1976, that I bought second hand (at least!) in a very dodgy shop in Coventry called ‘Exchange and Mart’. I seem to recall that it contains a particularly long version of their classic ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ We may not at times this year have felt that we were on any kind of stairway to heaven, perhaps the opposite, but just for a few moments as I sit in Canterbury Cathedral, hearing once again those O Antiphons and listening to the harp, I get a little glimpse of the divine.