"O come thou Wisdom from on high, who orderest all things mightily; to us the path of knowledge show, and teach us in her ways to go."
The Music of December: Two Messages
Advent presents us with a musical quandary. Starting in November, we hear Christmas songs everywhere from the grocery store to the dentist's office. These songs are about a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes or Santa giving us our every wish. Meanwhile, our Advent worship music seeks to remind us that this a season of preparation and expectation.
Of course, hymns are chosen to highlight the lectionary readings, and the scripture passages for Advent also speak of preparation and expectation. We hear of the Hebrew people waiting for the Messiah and our current preparation for the second coming of Christ. These messages of waiting and watching are a definite contrast to society's focus on the Nativity story, Santa, and all those presents.
Advent Hymns Help us Along
This season, consider focusing on these hymns as a way to move past the cultural Christmas countdown and hold onto Advent. You might use them to spark discussion in small groups of all ages, in sermons, or in choir practice. As a way to get started, here are four themes that Advent hymns seem to have in common:
Here & Now - Hymns for the beginning of the church year often push us to live in the present. We're not singing about Bethlehem or traveling by donkey; we're singing with our feet firmly on this ground. Consider the first stanza of "People Look East."
Make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table. People look East and sing today: Love, the Guest, is on the way.
Scriptural Narrative - Of course Advent hymns are scripture-based. But notice also the way some hymns demonstrate God moving throughout scripture and history. Using words similar to those used in scripture, the 20th-century canticle "Sing We a Song of High Revolt" connects Mary's Magnificat with current day struggles of freedom from hunger and strife.
Sing we a song of high revolt; make great the Lord, his name exalt! ... By him the poor are lifted up; he satisfies with bread and cup the hungry ones of many lands; the rich must go with empty hands.
Apocalyptic - This is a striking word, right? Apocalyptic simply refers to God "breaking in." So the incarnation can be understood as apocalyptic, and the second coming is definitely apocalyptic. God's love and God's power are on full display in Advent. "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" portrays the mystery and power of God in our midst. But it's not only the lyrics, the French carol tune strikes me as other-worldly!
Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand; ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in his hand Christ our God to earth descendeth our full homage to demand.
Memorable - Over and over again when I asked people why they liked a particular Advent hymn they answered, "Because I can sing it!" The tunes of Advent hymns stick with us, bringing us back to this momentous waiting. When we sing the words of John the Baptist, himself echoing Isaiah, we participate in the story in a new way – we make scripture real for ourselves.
Prepare the way, O Zion! Ye awful deeps, rise high; sink low, ye towering mountains, the Lord is drawing nigh; the righteous King of glory, foretold in sacred story...
Other Favorite Advent Hymns
Following the readings from Isaiah and Matthew for Year A, I've picked a few hymns for each Sunday of Advent. This season, I hope you have the chance to grow, learn, and teach using the hymns of Advent. I look forward to hearing which ones speak to you.
Advent 1: Isaiah 2: 1-5, Matthew 24: 36-44
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
Advent 2: Isaiah 11: 1-10, Matthew 3: 1-12
Lo How A Rose Is Blooming
Crown Him With Many Crowns
Advent 3: Isaiah 35: 1-10, The Magnificat, Matthew 11:2-11
Comfort Comfort Ye My People
Be Thou My Vision
On Jordan's Bank the Baptist's Cry
Advent 4: Isaiah 7: 10-16 , Matthew 1: 18-25
Come Thou Long Expected Jesus
Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates
Charlotte Hand Greeson shares her passion for formation as a manager, editor, and writer for Building Faith. Her childhood parish was full of singing and she credits Nan White's junior choir with teaching her scripture. Charlotte currently lives in California with her husband and teenage son.
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