Reverend Mommy, God bless her, is embarking on a series of Advent hymns and today's offering is The Cherry Tree Carol. This transported me unexpectedly across nearly 3 decades, to my first Advent Carol Service at the independent (boys') school where I spent my 6th form years. The Director of Music, John Walker had been a choral scholar at King's Cambridge, and was determined that his choristers at Eastbourne should aspire to the same excellence in all things, and his Advent Carol services were legendary. Being a humble girl,(though one who finally made it to Head Chorister,- unthinkable when I arrived) this was my first prolonged exposure to the English Choral Tradition, and I was utterly overwhelmed.
On Advent Sunday we stood at the back of a borrowed church (these services were always way too big for the school chapel) waiting in silent darkness until from nowhere a voice rang out, reaching across the centuries
"I look from afar, and lo, I see the power of God coming, and a cloud covering the whole earth. Go ye out to meet him and say
Tell us, art thou he that should come to reign over thy people, Israel?"
Just typing those words sends tingles down my spine...it was here that I first fell in love with Advent, here that I first realised something about the way liturgy makes the eternal present. It was in singing my way through the Festivals here that they took root in my heart and soul too.
John was an unlikely evangelist (aren't they always?)- a Pickwickian figure with a repertoire of bawdy jokes and a fondness for good food and strong drink- but somehow, singing in his choir I learned more about worship and about the reality of God in the midst of it than I'd ever imagined. Years later, at my Selection conference, I was asked how I would cope with worship in contexts that were less than perfect. I floundered for a minute, wondering why the question had been asked since I was living and worshipping in a village where "make do and mend" was the order of the day in most things.Then I remembered the passion with which John ensured that, whatever our abilities, only the best we could offer would really do. That sense of aspiration remains strong,- for my heart was filled with longing for something just beyond our reach, something that lies at the heart of Advent as we wait in the darkness for the Light to come.