A statio or station was the post at which a Roman soldier would keep watch, and from this was derived the Lenten practice of having the Church in Rome keep watch at various churches in the city, keeping vigil against the Devil during those forty sacred fast days. In time, Advent, too, came to have stational churches although these are not as well known as the stational churches of Lent.
But given that Advent is the season wherein we are re-awakened to keep vigil for the Lord in his Second Coming, and also in remembrance of his First Coming, it seems especially fitting that we should have some devotional exercise in which we keep our station, that is, keep watch for the Lord's coming. The nascent custom of holding a devotional service of 'Advent Stations' is thus a welcome development. Begun last year by the Dominican friars in Washington, D.C. at their historic and handsome downtown church of St Dominic, the Advent Stations service is a beautiful and contemplative way to prepare for Christmas, especially when they are celebrated during these 'Golden Nights', that is, the Novena days before Christmas.
The service is reminiscent of so many existing traditions in the Church, and in its blend of these various elements it is strikingly 'post-modern' and thus it is very much a devotional exercise born of our times. I am reminded of Pope Francis' observation in Evangelii Gaudium that "[g]enuine forms of popular religiosity are incarnate, since they are born of the incarnation of Christian faith in popular culture. For this reason they entail a personal relationship, not with vague spiritual energies or powers, but with God, with Christ, with Mary, with the saints". I have found this to be true both of this Advent Stations and of the All Saints Vigil, also promoted by the friars of the St Joseph Dominican Province.
Hence, the service is entirely in candlelight as the traditional Rorate Masses were; there is movement from one Station to the next within the church as with traditional Stations of the Cross, and this movement is accompanied by singing; and at each Station, there is a prophetic reading followed by a fervorino as in the English Church's Festival of Lessons and Carols. The combination of music and dramatic movement and preaching brings to mind St Philip Neri's oratoria. When the seven Stations are completed, the procession returns to the Sanctuary and Compline begins. The addition of a liturgical element, particularly through singing the Divine Office, is something favoured by Dominicans around the world. However, it seems to me a fruition of some of the work of the classical Liturgical Movement and of one of the desires of Vatican II, which is that the laity should re-discover the Liturgy of the Hours.
Finally, the service ended with veneration of a relic of the Holy Manger which is yet another traditional devotion that is rightly being re-introduced to the people. Given that the Stational church for Christmas Midnight Mass in Rome is Santa Maria Maggiore where the Holy Manger is enshrined, this seems a fitting way to end the Advent Stations. For just as the Stations of the Cross are a way of spiritually walking through Jerusalem to Calvary, so these Advent Stations enable us to spiritually walk to the Holy Manger of Bethlehem (albeit now housed in Rome!).
Musically, the service consisted of the singing of an 'O Antiphon' (from the Antiphonarium S.O.P.) followed by the corresponding verse of 'O come, o come, Emmanuel' sung by all present. This is a laudable practice because although some may know of these antiphons few have had a chance to hear them sung, and fewer still may realize that this ever-popular hymn is based on the Church's ancient liturgical texts. So, this practice of putting them together makes this apparent, and I hope it also reminds us that 'O come, o come' is really only fit to be sung from the 17th of December.
Below are photos which I took during the service held on the 19th of December 2015, but they do not do justice to the occasion which was a time of solemn beauty, contemplative wonder, and fine Dominican preaching – not just through the reflections given by seven friars, but through music, and Liturgical prayer. I hope that this new devotion becomes a fixture in the local annual calendar, and that it will be taken up in parishes around the world!