The Beauty of Advent

(I originally wrote this article for the parish newsletter at Sacred Heart Church in Pinehurst, NC, 2003)

Happy New Year!

With the celebration of the First Sunday of Advent on November 27, we enter a new liturgical year, in which the Church will again present the history and unchanging mysteries of our salvation, from Creation to the Second Coming, together with the entire life of our Savior.

Advent is a particularly lovely season. For all its solemnity, it is a particularly exciting time as we again contemplate and anticipate the Coming of the Savior — incarnate in history, as we celebrate at Christmas; “in Glory, to judge the living and the dead” as we proclaim in the Creed; and in grace, in the Eucharist and in the Word of God proclaimed.

Our initial focus during the first two weeks of Advent is on Christ’s second coming. Again and again the scriptures remind us of our need to be ready, to be disposed, for His coming and His judgment; thus, Advent begins on a penitential note.

Then on the third Sunday of Advent, our focus lifts. Gaudete Sunday receives its name from the first word of our Opening Antiphon and of our Reading: Rejoice! The deep purple of penance is replaced today with the rose of joy. We begin our liturgical anticipation of Christmas.

While preparation for Christmas is an important part of Advent, this is also a season for us to discover a renewed vision of our lives as Christians. In the interval between the Incarnation and the Second Coming, we find our deepest meaning as human beings. Because of the great love God has for us, “He emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave… He humbled Himself, becoming obedient to death” (Phil. 2:7,8). As C.S. Lewis once said, this gives dignity to the lowliest of beggars, and humility to the most exalted of princes; how much more it gives meaning and substance to ordinary folk like you and me!

Even more wondrous is the Coming of Christ to human hearts. That the Creator of the cosmos chooses to intimately dwell with us, through the indwelling Holy Spirit and through Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, is a mystery about which we simply cannot afford to be come complacent.

We have a particular date to celebrate Christ’s birth; we are not given a day or an hour to anticipate His Coming Again. When we face God in the Final Judgment, we will have to give an accounting: “Do you love me?” Our Lord asked this of Peter; He will ask no less of us.

Advent becomes, therefore, a time to reflect on these Truths and to renew our commitment to Christ, to resolve to live this new liturgical year more faithfully than ever before.

The Sound of Music

What an amazing treat — last night, as the result of the great generosity of one of our Chorale members, my roommate Barb and I had box seats at Meymandi Hall for a concert of the North Carolina Symphony.

Guest performer with the Symphony was pianist Leon Fleisher. Fleisher lost use of his right hand nearly forty years ago due to a neurological condition called focal dystonia. Recent development of new treatments has allowed him to recover the full use of his right hand, an amazing, even awe-inspiring event. He and the Symphony performed the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414. The piano was turned so that we could not see his hands — a treat I would have greatly enjoyed — but even being able to observe the rapt concentration in his countenance as he bent over the keyboard was inspiring.

The Fleisher performance was a pure gift. WCPE has been featuring a number of pieces from Fleisher’s recently-released “Two Hands” CD. Somehow, however, it had not registered with me that he was going to play with the Symphony this week-end. It was a duel gift to be able to attend one of Fleisher’s concert performances.

This week-end was important for Barb and me because Our Guys, the men’s section of the NC Master Chorale, were singing with the symphony’s performance of Liszt’s Faust Symphony. They have been working hard since the beginning of the new season, and since Barb, as Chorale Manager, knows all of them, and since I have made several wonderful friends among them, we really wanted to hear them perform.

There’s something powerfully virile about male voices, and “our guys” did not disappoint. As part of the Mephistophiles “portrait” of the third movement of the symphony, the men added depth and color to the symphony performance. We were so proud to see them sitting their in their tuxedos, singing vigorously what was really a difficult piece for them — the tenors reaching a high “C” during the performance. They sounded just as they looked: HOT!

Next week-end we sing with the Symphony for the Holiday Pops concert. After hearing our men singing last night, I’m left in awe once again at what a privilege I’m enjoying, singing with this wonderful group.

On Southern Accents

I found out a local radio announcer is a North Carolina native, so after we had talked briefly by phone, recently, I made bold to email him with the question: Do people ever comment about your missing Tar Heel accent?

Yeah, he responded. He gave credit (or perhaps blame, depending on your perspective) on his mother, an English teacher. “You?” he asked.

Well, of course! I began to discard my accent, to pronounce words more fully, with more open vowel sounds, as a result of my middle and high school chorus teacher, who was a stickler for enunciation. Over the years, the more I’ve sung, the more distanced I’ve become from my southern accent.

No, I’m not ashamed of the way we sound down here. Some people think it’s charming — and it certainly can be evocative of magnolia blossoms and mint juleps. My family, though, is sufficiently removed from its alleged English landed gentry ancestry that when I joke about my redneck roots I’m not exaggerating by much. Our people, the rural southerners, sound more as if they might have a pinch of snuff tucked between teeth and jowl. Our vowels come out flat, able to stretch what is supposed to be a single syllable into two and sometimes three: Ca-yat, pro-nou-yance. Our voices carry more than a hint of a challenge to the listener — or perhaps a threat of potential danger.

And let me be honest, we do laugh at people with other accents, and we hold our own stereotypes of certain accents, just as people hold stereotypes of ours. For instance, New Yorkers (from NYC or Rochester, it doesn’t particularly matter) come to the South as determined to take over and rebuild us in their image as Sherman in his march to the sea. We hold these Yankees in about as much esteem as we did Sherman, too — although we can be quite pleased to take their money when the mood strikes. And with the golf and tourism industries ruling the roost around here, the mood rarely departs.

It’s funny — a friend from California says my southern accent is charming, folks from Louisiana thought I sounded Yankee, while my cousin down the road complains that I don’t have any accent left at all, that I’m gettin’ above my raisin’.

Can’t win for losing, sometimes.

Prayer Request updates

Two new prayer requests for you, please:

Jenn is the daughter-in-law of my dear friend Donna. Jenn had a lot of hormone-related heart trouble during her first pregnancy, and now she’s early in the first trimester with her second pregnancy, and has begun having the same symptoms again. She has also lost one of a set of twins, Donna tells me; the other baby seems to be doing well so far.

Steve is Donna’s daughter’s boss. He has just recently been diagnosed with cancer — his kidney is affected, and he only has the one kidney.

I’ve taken off a couple of people for whom I’ve been unable to get updates; I’m assuming that, after so many weeks, the crisis has passed. And I’m glad to be able to report that right now it looks as if Elwood may not have to undergo further treatment for the skin cancer he had removed a couple weeks ago.

Thanks, as always, for your prayers for these people.

’tis the (unhappy) season

… of tossing out dogs and cats in our rural community.

We expect — and find — several discarded dogs, hunting breeds, late in the deer season and for a couple weeks after it ends. We know they’re throw-aways because their collars and ID have been removed; a good dog always has a sturdy collar and ownership tags.

Less commonly seen are the cats. Oh, they’re there, but cats are wiley, independent and generally distrustful creatures who quickly revert to a feral nature. I know we have these wild cats — my cousin feeds them along with the family barn and yard cats, some becoming, eventually, almost tame and certainly tolerant of their human hosts, and I occasionally see one ducking around the corner of the tobacco barn.

What I haven’t experienced, until now, is the adoption by a cat. Bubba and the stranger woke me up in the wee hours of the night, Thursday morning, arguing with one another not far enough away from my bedroom window. I went outside and fussed at them; they relocated, but again, not far enough away. I didn’t see The Ghost then — the glare of the security light in my back yard was too bright.

Thursday night I was loading the car to go up to Raleigh for an early Friday appointment, and there on the back deck was a startlingly white cat. The first detail one notices about him is a very puffy tail. He miaowed at me and came within three feet of me as I stood and admired him, looking into my face and holding that lovely tail like a proud flag. Then Bubba followed me out the back door, and this little ghost of a cat serenely retreated to the shed. I left no food out, thinking he’d migrate on down the road soon enough if left alone.

Last night, shortly after I got home from Raleigh, while both Bubba and Precious were curled on the floor near my feet, I heard the high-pitched miaowing just outside the back door. I went to look, and the white cat was there. I had to feel sorry for him; I put some cat food in a plastic bowl and laid it down for him, and he rubbed against my ankles before he deigned to eat, even stretched his almost-glowing white head up to be scratched. Of course, I had to comply with his request as if I had no will of my own to resist him (and I didn’t want to, really).

A little later, the miaows came again, so insistently, that I decided to allow him in if he wished. I needed something from the shed, so I left the back door open while I went to fetch it; sure enough, he must have walked in immediately; when I returned to the house Precious was standing at the back door, looking back toward my bedroom with a certain indignant expression and threatening low growls in the back of her throat. “It’s going to be below freezing here tonight! I can’t just make him stay out in this cold!” I told her. When he heard my voice, he came immediately to me, and Precious turned her back on us both and returned to the living room, stealthily, turning every few paces and walking crab-style while she fussed at us.

He’s a simply beautiful cat — white, pale blue eyes (and a disarming way of looking directly at one) and pink ear tips and nose. His body is too skinny right now to be obviously be long-haired; the tail gives it away. He has stretched up to prop his front paws against my knee as dogs do, talked to me most earnestly, meekly submitted to having his ears cleaned with hydrogen peroxide (he appears to have ear mites), climbed in my lap while I try to work, investigated my coffee cup, slept on my notebook, followed me like a dog when I go from the living room to any other room in the house… and even now is attempting to be my muse (mews?) as I write this.

In short, someone has loved and petted and spoiled this cat with a lot of human attention, making him happy to come close to strangers and eager to be loved again. He seems to have decided I am his for keeps. Already, Bubba ignores him unless he comes too close, and even Precious, the grande Dame of the household, tolerates him far more sweetly than she has ever done Bubba.

Problem is, my life circumstances are such that I cannot take on more pets right now. I’m going to be talking to my next-door neighbor this week-end about taking Bubba to be a barn cat for her horses; I’m getting ready to return to Raleigh. Someone has chosen to dump a cat out on the side of a country road instead of taking responsibility to find him a new home or even take him to the pound. It breaks my heart to think of the number of animals euthenised each week at our shelter; still, it would be kinder to put a pet down than to leave it at the risk of illness or serious injury, left to die alone, in pain and untended, possibly spreading disease and causing injury to other domestic pets. And it is I — a stranger who did not ask for this responsibility — who is left to exercise the choice.

I’m calling this little baby “the ghost” — and I hope he can find a home soon. Right now he’s lying across my left knee, dozing. He’ll make someone an affectionate pet.

Warm Congratulations, Deacon Alex Jones!

Former Pentecostal pastor Alex Jones was ordained to the permanent diaconate on October 7.

Alex spoke at the Ignited by Truth conference in Raleigh, NC, in 2004, where I got to meet him and share some of the joy of being a convert. His testimony is awesome — in promising his Pentecostal congregation in Detroit a “real New Testament worship service,” he embarked on a study of the real apostolic church that ultimately led to his conversion to Catholicism — bringing more than 50 of his former congregation along with him.

Detroit is very blessed to have such a passionately dedicated man among its ordained ministers!

Would this guy look good in a tux?

Sitting around the table last night after Chorale rehearsal, we began talking about the men’s upcoming performance of Liszt’s Faust (with the NC Symphony, next week, in several venues)… and somehow the subject of chorale attire came up, particularly men’s attire, the good ol’ standby tux…

And someone observed that all men look darn good in a tux. Even the plainest, oldest, baldest, fattest, most cross-eyed, or geekiest, gawkiest, ugliest man on the planet would look HOT in a tux! And I certainly agreed!

But then I had to think of… Larry the Cable Guy (see photo above). Somehow I just can’t make the transition…. Do you suppose he’d try to wear that ball cap with… oh, now my head hurts!