America magazine posted a feature this weekend in which two authors reacted to a priest’s (!) opinion that we only have one Advent song – “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” – by putting together playlists of songs for Advent.
It was a nice idea.
But I was disappointed to see that out of all of the songs on the playlists none were taken from the church’s treasury of Advent songs and carols found in our hymnals (except “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and, oddly, a Christmas song, “Lo, How a Rose”).
Churches through their hymnals give us wonderfully rich collections of Advent music that could – I would hope – enrich our homes and our personal prayer during this season. They contain, if you will, the Advent “playlist” of the praying church. Maybe recourse to a hymnal is hopelessly “conventional” (the article was billed as an “unconventional” playlist). But I suspect that singing things out of hymnals at this point in history is actually counter-cultural.
Personally, I love Advent hymns. My only regret is that we have only four weeks in which to sing them. Ambrose’s majestic hymn, “Savior of the Nations, Come,” fills me with awe; Eleanor Farjeon’s imaginative and poetic “People Look East” is a treasure I look forward to each year. The bell-like cadences of “On Jordan’s Bank” call me to attention, and the lighthearted joy of the French carol “O Come, Divine Messiah,” makes me want to dance. In church today as we sang “Sleepers, Wake!” I felt a surge of energy anticipating the bridegroom’s coming. And even now, I’m looking forward with keen anticipation to singing “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” when Gaudete Sunday rolls around.
These are just a few of my favorites. I am sure Pray Tell readers could come up with many more.
Do most parishes just not sing a variety of Advent hymns, I wonder? With all our big screens and worship aides are we nonetheless suffering from a self-inflicted poverty? If you hear nothing but “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” I guess it’s inevitable that you’ll think it’s the only Advent hymn we’ve got. But what does that say about the state of the art? Are parish ministers relying too much on “the one tune everybody knows” and so not feeding the musical and theological imagination of their people? Or is the Advent season simply too short for a congregation to absorb and recall anything but the most oft-repeated words and refrains?
There are so many wonderful hymns, songs, and chants for Advent (I have not even mentioned “Wait for the Lord” or “Creator of the Stars at Night”) that it actually hurts me to think that anyone could take away the impression that there is only one Advent hymn. Don’t get me wrong. O “Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is beautiful, and it may indeed anchor the season, but it cannot be our only song.
It’s true however that Advent is a compact season. And this year we have only three weeks total, as the fourth Sunday of Advent is Christmas eve. I’ve been grappling with the fact that the Sundays of Advent give us far too short a time to sing all the Advent songs I want to sing. There are only four Sundays of Advent, and Sunday Mass is only one hour in the week.
So I’ve decided to sing some of my favorite Advent hymns at home — around the Advent wreath, at grace before meals, or whenever I can – as a spiritual exercise for the season. I am hoping to let the music engrave the Advent season a little bit more deeply on my heart and allow it to color my everyday life.
Maybe these hymns will become a countervailing inner melody, something more precious than the “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” shopping center tunes the air is full of. When at times it seems I can’t schedule “one more thing” perhaps I can simply allow the music of an Advent song or hymn give voice to the season’s hope and longing, anticipation and joy.