Johann Walther and Michael Praetorius | Nun komm der Heiden Heiland
Instrumenta Musica – Ercole Nisini
| Excerpt from concert 31 Dec. 2016

A couple of weeks ago, I took one of those quizzes that go around on Facebook. What’s your favorite season, I was asked. Spring or summer, I answered. I couldn’t decide which.

But I wasn’t thinking. I should have said Advent.

Besides, to misquote the schmaltzy pop song, it’s beginning to look a lot like Advent now.

Advent is not only the beginning of a new church year. The season has also inspired some of my very favorite music over the centuries, including some early Lutheran chorales that are bound up with the history of my family. We sang one of them Sunday.

In any event, we kicked off the new year Sunday morning at Peace Lutheran Church. We did it very much in our own style, and it reminded me of the old saying about weddings. Something old, something new. Something borrowed, something blue.

Something new. Well, new to me at least.

When it came time for the sermon, Pastor Mary had volunteers from the congregation act out something she’d learned as a kid at church camp. It was sort of like playing telephone. They stood in a line, and each asked their neighbor in turn, right to left, “Is it time yet? Is it time yet? Is it time yet? Is it time yet?” The volunteer at the end answered, “No.” And each passed it on, left back to right, “No. No. No. No.” A couple of rounds of this, “Is it time yet? Is it time yet? …” and the volunteer at the end answered, “Yes.”

And back the answer went, each to each, left to right “Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.” Pastor Mary said the shtick went on endlessly at summer camp, but she cut it off after a couple, three rounds when we all got the drift.

With that introduction in our minds, came a sermon on the lectionary readings for the 1st Sunday in Advent. St. Paul, in Romans 13:11: “… you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” And the gospel, Matthew 24:44: “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Is it time yet? Yes, it’s time for the incarnate Word to come. Is it time yet? In fact, the incarnate Word is already among us. Emanuel, God with us. And it’s time for us proclaim the Word and seek the presence of Emanuel, God with us. Within us, I would add. The age-old Advent message, in other words.

All of which came to me in a new way Sunday, sitting back in the choir, nodding my head and trying to connect the readings for Advent I and the sermon with the issues that come up in my spiritual direction sessions.

Since I’ve been doing spiritual exercises (or trying to) for more than a year now, it’s hardly surprising that I connected with a reflection in the Jesuit magazine America by professor Jaime L. Waters of DePaul University: “In the liturgical context of Advent, this language [of the pericopes] reminds us to prepare for Christ’s arrival not only at Christmas but at all times in our lives.” To seek the presence of God in all things, in other words. Waters adds:

To prepare for the Lord, we must realize that the Lord is already with us. We need not wait until Christmas or the end of days to encounter Christ. We should see Christ in all people, especially those who are most vulnerable and in need of mercy and love.

So, deck the halls, feast and be merry, but let us not forget that to truly prepare during this Advent season, we must be guided by the light of Christ and see Christ in the people we encounter in our daily lives.

I’ve always thought of Advent as something that comes down to us from long ago and far away. From medieval monks (or 19th-century Englishmen of the Oxford Movement liturgical revival) chanting Veni, veni Emanuel. Sort of an antidote to the commercial hype-o-palooza of the season. But this seemed real, and present in daily life.

Not a bad start to the season. And to the church year.

Something borrowed, something blue. I don’t know if anything struck me as particularly borrowed Sunday morning. It seems like after a sometimes tempestuous process of blending three congregations with very different corporate cultures, we’ve made things pretty much our own. But blue is the color for Advent.

“Blue is associated with Advent, suggesting hope,” explains an ELCA resource guide on liturgical colors. “This association originated in Scandinavia, probably because purple dye was too expensive for churches to use.”

(It used to be purple, but purple was too much like Lent. And, yah sure, purple dye would be pretty expensive. My Norwegian forebears were nothing if not practical.)

Something old.There’s certainly enough about Advent that’s very old. It’s been around, in one form or another, in the Western rite Christian churches since the 5th century. And Advent psalms, or chorales, have been part of the Lutheran tradition from the very beginning. We sang one of them Sunday, “Savior of the Nations, Come” (NUN KOMM, DER HEIDEN HEILAND, No. 263 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship), for our post-communion canticle. The words are Martin Luther’s, a paraphrase of the 4th-century hymn Veni redemptor gentium (come, savior of the nations) by St. Ambrose (ca. 340-397):

Savior of the nations, come;
virgin’s son, make here your home.
Marvel now, O heav’n and earth;
God has chosen such a birth.

Not by human flesh and blood,
but the mystic breath of God,
was the Word of God made flesh,
fruit of woman, blossom fresh. …

The hymn came right after communion, and it was followed by a prayer ending, “… may our words and our work in your name invite others into your bountiful grace. Send us from your table to proclaim your presence, even as we await the glorious coming of Christ our Savior.”

But it’s not about pie in the sky, I’m coming to realize. It’s here and now, and it involves recognizing the presence of God in my neighbor.

The melody is Luther’s reworking of the chant associated with Veni redemptor gentium in medieval Germany. It was published in Johann Walther’s Eyn geystlich Gesangk Buchleyn (a little spiritual songbook) in 1524. Walther was the Kappellmeister, or music director, for the Elector of Saxony and a good friend and musical adviser of Luther’s. (He is also known, at least in my family, as my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-uncle Johann, since family lore claims we’re descended from him.) According to Wikipedia, Luther and/or Walther may have composed it for Advent services in Wittenberg in 1523. So it is one of the very earliest Lutheran chorales.

There are some gorgeous Reformation-era and baroque settings available on YouTube, along with several Bach chorales (search for them by the German name, Nun komm, der heiden heiland). The video embedded at the top of this post, by the German period music ensemble Instrumenta Musica led by Ercole Nisini, features two settings — the first is Great-great … great-uncle Johann’s setting of 1524 in the geystlich Gesangk Buchleyn, and the second is by late 16th- and early 17th-century composer Michael Praetorius (beginning at 2:00). Both are lovely examples of Renaissance polyphony in northern Europe.

Also in the spirit of the early Reformation, the video embedded below shows the chorale sung by a Catholic church choir in Minnesota as an offertory anthem, but in the straight chorale fashion that Luther advocated for congregational singing.

“Savior of the Nations Come,” Church of Saint Michael, Stillwater, Minn.

5 thoughts on “Is it time yet? Yes, it's beginning to look a lot like Advent — 'Savior of the Nations, Come' and the presence of God with us

  1. Here red is the color of vestments in our Catholic Church for Advent. I learned from the homily yesterday that the first two readings in Advent actual relate to the Second Coming and the second two weeks to the Nativity. Never knew that before.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting! Our reading from the Old Testament was one of the passages in Isaiah that’s interpreted as foretelling the coming of Christ, and I can see how that would fit, too. I’ve got to be familiar with the old Swedish Lutheran liturgy when I was researching Swedish-American immigration, and they work Palm Sunday into the music, and I think that puts an interesting perspective on it. Appropriate, too, at least it gets me thinking.

      Liked by 1 person

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