December 18, 2011—Advent Four
Apparently—and the musicians among us could confirm this for the rest of us—“anticipation” is a technical term in music, describing an instance in which a single note is played prior to the chord to which the note belongs, and “resolves” when the “anticipated” chord finally is reached (Wikipedia, in the article “Non-Chord Tone.”). So, for example, a C chord includes the notes C, E and G, played all at once (because that’s what a chord is). An anticipation would occur when one of those three notes was played alone first, and then followed by the chord itself. Presumably, then, our ears are kind of naturally tuned to expect the anticipated chord after one of its member notes has been played. The note is played, and we wait for its resolution in a chord that makes musical sense to us— that’s pleasing to the ear—that fits, and is like a musical homecoming.
In Advent, we live in that kind of anticipation, in that space between the sounding of the single note, and its resolution in the chord in which the note belongs. We live with the kind of expectation, the kind of trust and the kind of hope that the single note stirs up within us. Isaiah’s promises: “Comfort, O comfort my people; speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and tell her that her warfare is ended . . .,” John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness, “Prepare a way!” Angels, appearing to Joseph, and to Mary, talking about what’s about to transpire in their lives and in their world. Mary, singing her Magnificat, calling for the mighty to be cast down from their thrones, and the meek to be lifted up from the dust. Our own voices, singing, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel/that mourns in lowly exile here, until . . ..” Until. All these things sound that first note—that first tone that then leaves us hanging in the winter air, waiting until— waiting for the resolution that surely will come
with the birth of the promised child. In Advent, we live in the space between the note and the chord, trusting that the chord indeed will sound—that there will, ultimately, be resolution, and resolution of the most wondrous kind.
There are various definitions of the musical phenomenon known as anticipation, and some of them suggest that, at least some of the time, the sounding of the initial note creates a momentary dissonance—a sound that’s momentarily jarring, or incongruous—not immediately pleasing to the ear—unharmonious, and even harsh. And the dissonance creates in the listener an even more profound yearning for the resolution that will come with the chord that follows. Whether or not this dissonance rightly is part of the musical definition of anticipation, it may be rightly said to be part of the spiritual experience of anticipation. The sense of things not fitting neatly, not sounding quite the way we would like them to sound, of being slightly askew, or off-centre, quite accurately describes much of our experience in today’s world—and particularly so in the season of Advent, when our awareness of how very far we are from peace on earth and goodwill among the earth’s people is heightened. And so our Advent anticipation takes on a bittersweet feel, and is infused with a stronger and more urgent yearning for resolution.
The thing about our Advent waiting is that we’re shaped, not only by the note that we’ve already heard, but also by the chord that we haven’t heard yet — we’re shaped by the resolution—the homecoming—before it’s made fully manifest in our lives— while it’s still only hinted at. And so our Advent waiting requires trust, and imagination, and a kind of discernment, to notice the places where the resolution is implied—anticipated—the places that seem to be humming the chord before it’s fully sounded. Ironically, mysteriously, and even miraculously, waiting that’s shaped by the One for whom we wait brings the future into the present, and makes that One manifest in the here and now. In other words, waiting for “Immanuel”—God-with-us— waiting for the Incarnation—waiting for the Revelation of The Holy—starts the work of transforming us even before the birth takes place. Or at least, it has the potential to do so. In Advent, then, anticipation becomes a holy occupation. Anticipation actually, physically, in this world, prepares the way of the One who is to come, and reflects the character of that One. It hums the chord before it’s actually sounded.
Clearly, then, Advent anticipation goes far deeper than simply getting ready for Christmas celebrations—laying in the provisions, hanging the decorations, doing the baking, shopping for presents. Advent anticipation involves offering our hearts and lives for reshaping by the One whose birth we await—opening our hearts and lives to transformation. It involves remem-bering promises, pondering meaning, discerning places where the promise is being fulfilled, and actually living in a new way—a way suggested by our longing and our hope—a way that bears witness to the new reality that we’re convinced is coming into the world—a way that hums the chord that the earth longs to hear, thus pointing to a resolution of the earth’s current dissonance and disharmony.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my heart rejoices in God my Saviour, sings the Mary of Luke’s Gospel, taking the angel at his word and anticipating the great re-ordering of all reality that will take place when her child is born. Anticipating. Rejoicing as if that great re-ordering already had begun to take place, which, of course, it had. This was Mary’s holy occupation as she awaited the birth. As it is our holy occupation: to anticipate the great re-ordering, and to rejoice as if, and because, it has begun to take place. Having heard the note, to live lives that hum the chord, until.
Thanks be to God. Amen.