Advent II

Interfaith coupledom has entered a new phase. Friday night, Richard and I headed up to B’nai Jeshurun on 88th Street a little after 6 o’clock. Having become accustomed to relatively poor church attendance rates in Manhattan, watching a room and balcony fill up with congregants was a jolt to the system. People talked enthusiastically before the service as the oud and clarinet tuned up in front of the bimah. Within ten minutes there was singing with dancing soon thereafter.

Unfamiliar with the proto-Mediterranean music, the order of service or the essence of what being there ought to be about, my only point of reference were correlating elements with the Anglican tradition. Preparation for Sabbath begins with the 95th Psalm, the same Psalm which constitutes the Venite, the first appointed canticle for the service of Matins. Much like Evensong, Psalms are essential to getting the service going. Far more was sung than said in the service. And even more was read privately than sung.

I admit I had never thought of reading as having a physical embodiment until Friday. Fellow congregants read psalms, prayers or other texts at their own pace, partaking in a middle ground of public performance and private devotion that doesn’t exist in the Anglican Eucharist. One might have near silence at points, or low level muttering and chanting of psalms, as well as occasions when the congregation is singing portions of the psalms in unison.

I realized that Anglicanism’s Catholic heritage has provided somewhat of a zero-sum game when it comes to participation in the service. Either you are watching, or you are sitting/standing/reading/singing exactly the same thing as your fellow congregants at the same time. Recited sections of text are often short, memorable, easily reproducible. The theatrical nature of Catholicism is beautiful, yes, but it’s built on the dark historical reality of illiteracy. Indeed the Eucharist has become beautiful over the centuries, but perhaps only due to necessity. After all, for hundreds of years, Christian children with intellectual promise were relegated to lives of celibacy in the church. Literacy did not pass from parent to child, but from cleric to novice.

I suppose I identified most with the very end of the Sabbath preparation and the singing of the L’cha dodi. It tells of anticipation for the arrival of God’s bride in the Sabbath, but also in awaiting Jesse’s son of Bethlehem, the foretold Messiah. In the final verse, the congregation turns to face the entrance to the synagogue, welcoming in the Sabbath as she enters as well as expecting the Messianic arrival.

Richard came to church this morning. It was a good morning for it, musically speaking. While I’d like to think every Sunday in front of the choir is a good musical occasion, Advent is special and weird. Think about it: it’s a season of waiting for something that we already know is coming. We get to be bleak, but it’s one that’s fairlt insincere. Christ isn’t not going to be born, and Episcopalians don’t really believe in hell or consequential divine intervention, anway. In this sense, there’s a dramatic element to the swathes of fire and brimstone, wailing and penitence, lying in the knowledge that there will be a release of the tension come December 24. We can’t un-remember that Christmas is coming – it’s kind of essential to the whole Christianity thing.

With little exception, I’m guilty of doing the same music every year for Advent. It’s simply not Advent without Byrd’s setting of words from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, utilized in the second section of the Advent Prose.

Civitas sancti tui facta est deserta. Sion deserta facta est, Jerusalem desolata est.

Living under the reign of Elizabeth I, William Byrd may have been more familiar with desolation and general bleakness than many composers throughout history. The English Reformation was still not over, and the fate of English Roman Catholics was unsure. Byrd’s Canciones Sacrae of 1589 were composed and compiled in a period of relatively violent period. There are at least eight martyrs officially recognized by the Catholic Church who died in 1589 for their faith. The relatively small scale of its contents point to the extent to which Roman Catholic liturgy had been diminished. Gone were extravagant and lengthy anthems for the English Marian liturgy, the likes of which were found in the Eton Choirbook. Byrd’s works instead hearken back to the smaller anthems compiled in the 1575 Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, such as Thomas Tallis’s In jejunio et fletu.

In jejunio et fletu orabant sacerdotes: Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo, et ne des hereditatem tuam in perditionem. Inter vestibulum et altare plorabant sacerdotes, dicentes: Parce populo tuo.

(In fasting and weeping the priests prayed: Spare, O Lord, spare thy people, and give not thine inheritance to perdition. Between the porch and the altar the priests wept, saying: Spare thy people.)

If anything from this period could be seen in a Dickensian light, it would be the Byrd’s and Tallis’s Reformation era Latin works. Like Dickens’s prose, the counterpoint speaks fluently of depressing matters.

In the hardest working part of Coketown; in the innermost fortifications of that ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in; at the heart of the labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts, and close streets upon streets, which had come into existence piecemeal, every piece in a violent hurry for some one man’s purpose, and the whole an unnatural family, shouldering, and trampling, and pressing one another to death; in the last close nook of this great exhausted receiver, where the chimneys, for want of air to make a draught, were built in an immense variety of stunted and crooked shapes, as though every house put out a sign of the kind of people who might be expected to be born in it; among the multitude of Coketown, generically called ‘the Hands,’ — a race who would have found mere favour with some people, if Providence had seen fit to make them only hands, or, like the lower creatures of the seashore, only hands and stomachs.                                                                                  (Hard Times, Charles Dickens)

One gets enjoyment out of reading Dickens, as the landscape and environment are so equally detailed in their descriptions. The interaction between space and the lives of the characters in Hard Times keeps the reader wondering if there really is any way out of Coketown.

Like Dickens, Byrd has way of getting at a similar sort of dramatic claustrophobia. Byrd’s situation of Civitas Sancti in a major key is deceptive. If one listens to the harmonies alone, without text, one might hear tones of comfort or sentimentality. But the middle section, Sion deserta facta est, is in pure homophony, total stagnation.


And yet the counterpoint tells a different story. Throughout the course of the anthem, the thematic material takes a interesting journey.


Each of the themes contain elements of each other. “Jerusalem” and “Civitas Sancti” use the same melodic descending third. The first “desolata est” and “facta est deserta” share the same rhythm.


They both come together however, in the final thematic iteration of “desolata est,” containing the same melody of the opening theme with the rhythmic impetus of the second.



The piece has travelled and at the same time the music has not. Though time passes, the listener is in the same place as when the piece began. Desolation may entail some vague expectation of improvement, but it’s also a confrontation of that which is in front of you. Otherwise, it will just remain the same. There is no hope without the preceding hopelessness.

The Jerusalem declaration did not go unnoticed at either B’nai Jeshurun or Christ & Saint Stephen’s. How could it not? The historical importance of the city draws the eyes of the world week after week, year after year, though solutions seem far away. But both congregations were told that while Jerusalem is important, it’s but a preparation for that Jerusalem which is to come.

But that doesn’t negate certain realities. Whether you like it or not, the State of Israel has made Jerusalem its political capital, irrespective of Donald Trump’s symbolic act of recognition. The status quo remains the same. The silver lining of Trump’s actions is perhaps the fact that we are asking ourselves about what the alternatives really are to the last 50 years of American policy in the Middle East. What are we anticipating? Is Advent – or indeed, are our lives – spent in confrontation or expectation?

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