Some of the information in this post has been incorporated into my book, Rekindling Advent: Rediscovering the Season of Joyful Waiting, which you may order by going here.
Until recently, most Evangelical Christians knew virtually nothing about Advent. The period before Christmas, in most Evangelical churches, is considered to be the “Christmas season.” The “holiday shopping season”, inaugurated by Macy’s department store with its annual Thanksgiving Day Parade, is for Evangelicals also the beginning of Christmas celebrations, complete with Christmas trees, cantatas or musicals, the singing of Christmas carols, etc.
In the past several years, noted Evangelical authors have published books about Advent, such as Focus on the Family’s Christ in Christmas: A Family Advent Celebration and Lisa Whelchel’s The ADVENTure of Christmas.
The cumulative result of such books is this: Evangelicals still know virtually nothing about Advent. The above books simply try to “re-Christianize” the “holiday shopping season” by emphasizing that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” They advocate all the traditional Christmas activities: singing Christmas carols, decorating the Christmas tree, reading the story of the Nativity, etc. Of course, there is nothing wrong with any of these things, but it would be nice if a book that purports to teach Christian families about Advent would teach them about Advent rather than about Christmas. (The title of both of the above books illustrates Evangelicals’ confusion over the season.)
Advent is not Christmas any more than Lent is Easter or Good Friday is Pentecost. Advent is its own season, beginning the Sunday closest to St. Andrew’s Day (30 November) and continuing until sundown on Christmas Eve, when the Christmas season begins. Christmas lasts for twelve days and runs into the Feast of the Epiphany (6 January). Advent has its own liturgical color (purple or blue) in contrast with the liturgical color of Christmas (white). It also has its own appointed Psalms and Scripture readings, which focus on the Coming (or Advent) of Christ, both his First Advent and his Second Advent.
In fact, an examination of the Scripture texts for this season will reveal that the Second Advent is equally as emphasized as, if not more emphasized than, the First Advent during this season. This is especially true of the First Sunday of Advent, also known as Advent Sunday. Advent Sunday is both the culmination of the old Church Year and the beginning of a New Church Year.
Advent is not so much about looking back as it is about looking ahead. To be sure, we read the words of the prophets about the Incarnation of Christ, and we revisit how it must have been for God’s people to wait so many centuries for Christ’s birth, but at the same time we highlight our own waiting and watching for the Lord’s return. As we hear the words “prepare ye the way of the Lord” from Isaiah during Advent, we aren’t just play-acting, pretending we’re “those people who lived a long time ago” waiting for Baby Jesus to be born in a manger, but we confess that we, here and now, are waiting and longing for Jesus to come again. The longings of the saints of old are instructive for us, during Advent, insofar as they inform our own longings for the Lord’s return.
As we teach and celebrate Advent, we need to keep this in mind. One very simple way to recover this emphasis is to rediscover the hymnody of Advent, which, again, is as distinct from the hymnody of Christmas as it is from the hymnody of Easter. Almost without exception, the hymns of Advent will automatically focus out attentions simultaneously on the prophets’ hope for the Incarnation and their promise of the Second Coming. Some representative Advent hymns are:
- Watchman, Tell Us of the Night – Often sung to the tune ABERYSTWYTH. K. Lee Scott has a very nice, very accessible (2-part) choral setting of this hymn, entitled “Advent Dialogue” (published by A.M.S.I.).
- Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence – This hymn, based on the ancient Liturgy of St. James, is usually sung to the tune PICARDY. K. Lee Scott, again, has a beautiful choral setting of this hymn, published by Carl Fischer.
- Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying – A hymn well-known to J. S. Bach fans because of his Cantata No. 140, “Wachet auf! Ruft uns die Stimme”. The tune WACHET AUF, is a typical “bar form” German chorale tune, and is, in my opinion, just one of those tunes every churchgoer should know.
- Savior of the Nations, Come! – Another Advent hymn that is known and loved by Bach fans. This one has a wonderful text by Martin Luther which is actually a paraphrase of a much earlier hymn by St. Ambrose of Milan (340-397). The melody is, of course, NUN KOMM, DER HEIDEN HEILAND.
- Come, Thou Long-expected Jesus – If you use the 1990 Trinity Hymnal (as we do), please completely ignore stanzas 2 and 3. First of all, they aren’t by Wesley: they were added by someone who apparently thought he could improve a Wesley hymn (which is pretty arrogant if you ask me); secondly, Wesley’s hymn is an Advent hymn: the added stanzas are about Christmas, once again illustrating that most Evangelicals don’t get Advent. But Wesley did, and his hymn text is wonderful. Most people think of the tune HYFRYDOL when they think of this hymn, but I think Stainer’s tune LOVE DIVINE (written for another Wesley hymn) works very nicely too. (It is also frequently sung to STUTTGART).
- O Lord, How Shall I Meet You? – Here is a nice article about this wonderful Paul Gerhardt chorale. The 1990 Trinity Hymnal pairs this hymn with ST. THEODULPH, but I prefer to use PASSION CHORALE.
- Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending – A great hymn by Wesley, perfect for the first Sunday of Advent because of its vivid treatment of the theme of the Second Advent of Christ.
- Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers – This text (like “Wake, Awake”) is based on Christ’s parable of the wise and the foolish maidens. This hymn works best with the Swedish tune HAF TRONES LAMPA FÄRDIG. The Trinity Hymnal lists it as “Rejoice, All Ye Believers”and pairs it with LANCASHIRE, which is certainly a well-known tune, but not nearly as captivating as the Swedish tune (but then I am a little biased). This makes a wonderful opening hymn for one of the Sundays of Advent, particularly if it is sung in procession.
- On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry – That’s the cry of John the Baptist (“Prepare the way of the Lord!”), not the former Baptists in your congregation who are crying because they don’t know any of these Advent hymns! This is usually sung to WINCHESTER NEW, which is also a useful tune for many metrical Psalm settings.
- Comfort, Comfort Ye My People – Obviously, the text of this hymn is based on Isaiah 40. The tune most commonly associated with this hymn is the lively Genevan Psalm tune GENEVAN 42.
- People Look East – Wonderful Advent text by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965), who is best known for the hymn “Morning Has Broken.” The usual tune for this carol is BESANÇON.
- O Come, O Come, Emmanuel – A poetic translation of a series of antiphons for the Advent season known as the “O Antiphons.” The usual tune, VENI EMMANUEL, is a plainchant melody.
- The Advent of Our God – A perfect opening hymn for any of the Sundays of Advent. ST. THOMAS is a great tune for this hymn.
- Creator of the Stars of Night – A sixth century Latin hymn, translated by John Mason Neale. The usual tune is CONDITOR ALME SIDERUM (from the Sarum chant), but the link above gives several other possible tunes, including BRESLAU.
- Zion, at thy Shining Gates – An exquisitely beautiful hymn text. K. Lee Scott has written an equally exquisite hymn tune for this text, COVENANT CHURCH. (If you go to K. Lee Scott’s web site, this is the piece you will hear playing on the front page.
- Long God’s Faithful People Waited – This hymn text by K. Lee Scott was originally written as “Father, Long Your People Waited” and paired with the hymn tune BRENT, which he also composed. He has more recently reworked the text as “Long God’s Faithful People Waited” and paired it with the tune HYFRYDOL. The latter can be found as part of his Lessons and Carols service entitled “Sing the Songs of Bethlehem“, available from Morning Star.
That’s sixteen hymns right there. Sixteen really, really good Advent hymns. If you typically sing four hymns per Sunday, then you have before you a full complement of hymns for the entire season of Advent. If you sing more hymns than that during your service, I would suggest, for each Sunday, also including a setting of the appointed Psalm or Canticle for that Sunday. The Psalms and Canticles for the four Sundays of Advent are:
- 1st Sunday of Advent – Psalm 122
- 2nd Sunday of Advent – Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
- 3rd Sunday of Advent – Psalm 146:5-10 or the Magnificat (Luke 1:47-55)
- 4th Sunday of Advent – Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
- 1st Sunday of Advent – Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
- 2nd Sunday of Advent – Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
- 3rd Sunday of Advent – Psalm 126 or the Magnificat (Luke 1:47-55)
- 4th Sunday of Advent – The Magnificat (Luke 1:47-55) or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
- 1st Sunday of Advent – Psalm 25:1-10
- 2nd Sunday of Advent – The Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79)
- 3rd Sunday of Advent – Isaiah 12:2-6
- 4th Sunday of Advent – The Magnificat (Luke 1:47-55) or Psalm 80:1-7
(Advent 2015 is in Year C. Advent 2016 will be in Year A.)
You can easily find many good metrical settings of all the above. Christopher Webber’s A New Metrical Psalter is a good source, and permission is granted to those who purchase the book to reprint the texts in worship bulletins for congregational use. All of the above Psalms and Canticles can be found in this collection. In addition, Timothy Dudley-Smith’s excellent hymnic setting of the Magnificat, “Tell Out, My Soul, the Greatness of the Lord” is in many hymnals, including the Trinity Hymnal. Please note that the Psalter and Canticle selections in the lectionary are intended to be sung (or at least read in unison or responsively) as a response to the first reading. The Psalter or Canticle selection for each day is not intended to be another Scripture reading. Psalms and Canticles, by definition, should be sung.
The Advent section of the Trinity Hymnal is pretty dismal. Of the sixteen hymns listed above, it only has four–“Let All Mortal Flesh,” “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “Come, Thou Long-expected Jesus” with the aforementioned spurious second and third stanzas, and “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” in a boring, smoothed-out version of the GENEVAN 42 tune that loses all of that tune’s original “Geneva jig” character. This section also contains “Joy to the World”, which, although arguably an Advent text (it is more about the Second Coming than about the Incarnation), it is so associated with Christmas that it’s really kind of futile to try to stick it in the Advent section. Most other hymnals classify it as a Christmas hymn. The only other hymn in the Advent section is a metrical setting of Psalm 24, “Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates!” “Wake, Awake” and “Rejoice, All Ye Believers” are in the Trinity Hymnal, but they have been placed quite far from the Advent section. Congregations using a different Reformed hymnal, such as the Psalter Hymnal (CRC, 1987), Rejoice in the Lord (RCA), or the Presbyterian Hymnal: Hymns, Psalms, and Spiritual Songs (PCUSA), will find a much better selection of Advent hymns.
Advent’s hymnody is as rich and edifying as that of any other season of the year. It’s tragic that millions of Christians know virtually nothing about this season or its hymnody. It’s time we did something about that.