The season of Advent has arrived. But nothing kicks the legs out from under our observance of Advent like premature Christmas songs. Advent, as I’m sure you know, is the season leading up to Christmas, designed to focus us on the hope and expectation of Christ’s arrival, his advent in the world. It does this by reminding us that the world was in darkness before Christ. And it also uses that remembrance to bolster our desire to see him come again in glory at his second and final advent to dispel for good all lingering darkness. The spirit of Advent, then, is of watchfulness and waiting. Because of this, Christmas songs are inappropriate to the spirit of the Advent season. They don’t jive; they’re incongruous.
If you have a radio on or walk into a store between Thanksgiving and Christmas, though, you can’t help but hear Christmas songs. Even if most of them barely acknowledge anything like the actual Christian holy day, they’re all still reveling in the cultural Christmas of sleigh bells and sentimentality. And though there’s nothing wrong with listening to and enjoying those songs, their place is still during the Christmas season, which, believe it or not, begins on Christmas. So if we switch the radio off, what can we listen to instead? If only there were some good Advent songs… Oh wait, there are zillions.
You might not realize just how much Advent-specific music has been written and recorded. A lot of it has been written for use in church, while some has been written as choral/orchestral performance music. There’s far less (so far) that’s of a more du jour flavor, but I have a feeling that as more and more Christian musicians rediscover the season of Advent, there will be more in the years to come. There are no pop songs written for Advent that I know of, thankfully, and I hope there never will be.
So if you’ve only ever prepared for Christmas by listening to Christmas songs, I hope this year you’ll try out a new soundscape, and try to get a feel for the profound beauty of the season of Advent.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel — This is THE essential Advent song. Everyone who’s ever made an album has a version of this, but familiarize yourself with the entire hymn with its seven verses, adapted from the ancient O Antiphons.
E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come — A 20th century choral composition, the beauty of this piece is impossible to describe.
Ave Maria — This isn’t the one you’re thinking of. Franz Biebl is the composer of this indomitably stirring music, and the text is the entire Angelus devotion, the recitation of Gabriel’s “ave” to Mary.
Gabriel’s Message — Another song recounting the annunciation of Gabriel to Mary, “Gabriel’s Message” is a traditional Basque carol, paraphrased into English by Sabine Baring-Gould.
On Jordan’s Bank The Baptist’s Cry — The figure and message of John the Baptist is featured during Advent because he prepares a way for the Lord in the desert. This hymn entreats us to prepare a way for the Lord in our hearts.
Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth — Written by St. Ambrose of Milan (whose feast day is during Advent). One of the oldest metrical hymns of the Church.
The Truth Sent from Above — This English folk carol was collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams near Herefordshire and then harmonized. It tells of the fall of Adam and Eve, and the promise of redemption for them and their posterity by God’s Son.
Sleepers Awake — This instrumental composition by Bach is titled Wachet auf (Sleepers, awake!) after the 14th verse of Ephesians 5. That verse, and thus the spirit that comes through Bach’s music, is intended to rouse us in expectation of receiving the light of Christ.
Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending — A hymn focussing on the second Advent of Christ, his coming again in glory.
O Quickly Come, Great Judge of All — A direct supplication.
Drop Down Ye Heavens — Taken from Isaiah 45:8, “Drop Down Ye Heavens” (“Rorate Cœli” in Latin) expresses the longing for Salvation from above. It is used in the Western Catholic tradition as the versicle after the office hymn during Vespers throughout Advent, and also as the Introit for the Mass on the 4th Sunday of Advent.
UPDATE: More music!
Sankta Lucia — This song celebrates St. Lucy (whose name means “light”) and whose feast day falls within Advent. The Saint whose name means light has found a special devotion among the Christians of the far north, especially in Sweden, where several wonderful traditions have grown up around her.
The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns — A hymn looking forward to Christ’s final and glorious appearing.
To A Maid Engaged to Joseph — Another account of the Annunciation to Mary from Gabriel about her miraculous bearing of God’s Son.
Creator of the Stars of Night — From the ancient Latin hymn Conditor alme siderum, the words emphasize Christ’s original advent as the remedy for universal death, and his second advent as a dread and mighty event.
Vigilate — Composed by William Byrd, the text comes from the Lord’s own words: “Watch ye therefore, for you know not when the lord of the house cometh.”
Sainte Nicolaes, Godes Druth — This Old English song by Godric of Finchale is a prayer to St. Nicholas, whose feast day is December 6th. “‘Saint Nicholas, God’s beloved//Build for us a fair bright house//At the birth, at the bier [from birth to death]//Saint Nicholas, bring us safely there.”
Ecce virgo concipiet — The Latin Communion chant for the fourth Sunday in Advent, the text is a combination of Isaiah 7:14 (Behold a Virgin shall conceive…) and 9:6 (And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor…).
There is so much more music out there to discover. If you need a place to start, look up these albums: “Music for Advent” by the Schola Cantorum of St. Peter’s in the Loop, Chicago; and “From Darkness to Light” The Salisbury Advent Service. Also, look up some Lessons and Carols services on YouTube.
Have a blessed, musical Advent.