For more than fifty years, special evening celebrations on the First Sunday of Advent have been important events in the liturgical life of St. Mark's Cathedral, Seattle. The format of these services has followed the tried and true formula of readings from scripture with a variety of musical responses: processionals, psalms, carols, anthems and hymns.
That such a reasonable format should eventually suggest other possibilities did not arise until the use of that format (i.e. Lessons and Carols a la King's College, Cambridge) seemed, not only in its redundancy, but also in it's singular association with Christmas, to confuse and negate the distinctions appropriate to these important celebrations of Advent. Thus the question, "what to do?"
Thanks to an opportunity for creative dialogue with Dr. William Bertolas, at that time a member of the Compline Choir, we investigated the potential that seemed inherent in the Gregorian Chant settings of the Great "O" Antiphons, which have languished for too long on the dusty back shelves of liturgical disuse. While Christians of numerous denominations have for many years been singing the "O" Antiphons in the form of the hymn O come, O come, Emmanuel it seemed likely that this practice in itself had not really brought to life the vibrant images of Christ drawn form the Old Testament: Wisdom, Adonai, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Rising Dawn, King of Nations, and Emmanuel. Thus to celebrate the beginning for the Advent seasons with a liturgy in which the power of these images might be more vividly displayed and discovered anew became our goal.
The shape of the liturgy is quite simple: banners displaying the symbols of each antiphon are brought from the rear of the church, one at a time, as each antiphon is sung.After each banner is placed in the chancel a reading from scripture, a musical response (congregational hymn, carol or motet) and a prayer are offered. As a final musical response the hymn Veni, veni Emmanuel is sung with all of the banners carried in a grand exit procession.
Involved in the preparation of the first "O" Antiphon liturgy at St. Mark's were the following: the officiant, thurifer, seven readers, the Cathedral Choir, the Compline Choir, the organist, seven acolytes to carry banners, seven torchbearers to precede each banner in the procession. Various choir members and friends made the banners and the wooden stands that held the banners in the chancel. The generous hands on help of two members of the Altar Guild were of invaluable assistance in dealing with candles and innumerable back-stage details essential to successful execution of such and elaborate liturgy.
Few liturgies offer the opportunity for such wide and diverse participation of the laity, both in preparation and execution. It is from this standpoint that I feel those who prepare and offer this liturgy will find their greatest rewards and satisfaction.