Let's talk about Advent music for a minute, shall we? There is some difference between Advent music and Christmas music, although the two categories in many songs. If Advent is about anticipating the "arriving" and Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Christ, we can tell the difference quite easily. Consider the differences between "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "Joy to the World", for example. One is making a request for an event that will most assuredly happen in the future and the other about an event that has most assuredly taken place. Consider even the key of the tunes - one minor and one major - signalling lament and celebrating respectively. Together the two songs (as do the two seasons of Advent and Christmastide) tell the whole story of waiting and arrival both in the first and the second coming of Christ.
It is true that we are not like the Hebrew children waiting in the dark for a coming Messiah. Our Messiah has come, and it's right to sing "Joy to the World" on any day of the year. It is also true that we are waiting for our Messiah to come again, and we can rightly sing "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" on any day of the year. I think it matters deeply that we sing both, and understand more and more what it is exactly that we are are saying when we sing. In the (sung) words of the great Rich Mullins, I think that we do not make the truth of what we sing in Advent and Christmasmastide, but what we sing is making us.
And, here, I pause to holler, "Live by the spirit of the law, not the letter!" One of our first years of truly marking the season of Advent as a family, I was horrified to hear my husband singing "Santa Baby" loudly in the other room. (If you know my husband at all, you should imagine that sung in a perfectly schmaltzy lounge-singer style.) The liturgy for Advent is about a pattern of our daily habits of worship, prayer, contemplation and reading. Even the best habits deserve to be punctuated with an occasional outburst of frivolity, yes? Even O Come, O Come, Emmanuel includes the constant refrain, "Rejoice, Rejoice!"
The hope, though, is just like anything else worthwhile we train for in this life, that our daily practices of quiet restraint will prepare us even more fully for the festive, jubilant celebration of twelve days of Christmas feasting. An added benefit to learning the practices of Advent, is the discovery of many beautiful songs and hymns overlooked by pretty much the rest of the world trying to find the jolliest tunes possible to drive up end-of-year sales. (And, friends, let's be honest. Churches are guilty of the same thinking.)
Here's a dozen of our favorite albums to play during Advent. Not every song on every album is strictly themed for four weeks of Advent, but overall the content and the tone fit the season well. Let's live out the whole story this season. The one of waiting, as in: "O come, O King of nations bind / in one the hearts of all mankind / Bid all our sad divisions cease / and be yourself our King of Peace" and the one of celebrating: "No more let sins and sorrows grow / Nor thorns infest the ground / He comes to make His blessings flow / Far as the curse is found.”
p.s. There are all kinds of affiliate links in this post because I'm trying to be a good steward, and when you buy something through one of these links you don't pay more money, but in some magical twist of capitalism we get a little pocket change. Thanks!
The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs In and Out of the Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook by Elizabeth Mitchell
- unique covers of traditional Christmas hymns and some new songs for both Advent and Christmas
- some songs include heavy orchestration, even electronic elements that sometimes feel a bit - appropriately - chaotic
- for Advent, my favorite tunes on the album are the sweet rendition of "Bring a Torch, Jeaneatte, Isabella" or the haunting "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence"
Advent at Ephesus by Benedictines of Mary
- a collection of traditional Latin and English hymns for Advent sung by a young, monastic order of Sisters located in rural Missouri
- the album includes a wide range of beautiful sound, including polyphony, Gregorian Chant, medieval harmonies
- "Angelus Ad Virginem" is one of my favorites (even if I had to look up the translation!)
The Darkest Night of the Year by Over the Rhine
- In our house, Advent sounds a lot like Over the Rhine.
- see everything I said above!
Advent, Vol. 1 by The Brilliance
- a relatively new album that has become pretty much standard listening for us in Advent
- if I could sum up all my Advent prayers for the world, it might sound a bit like "May You Find A Light"
Handel: Messiah (The Complete Oratorio) by George Frideric Handel and Robert Shaw
- Handel basically composed the soundtrack for the entire liturgical year and should be required listening for every Advent and Lent, culminating each year with the Hallelujah chorus.
- There are so many versions, but my friends who know best swear by Robert Shaw. Also, let me encourage you to listen to the whole thing in order. It's sort of like reading the Bible.