Advent Playlist: Classic hymns to help you wait in hope

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Last year, America published “An (unconventional) Advent Playlist,” an article including two playlists by Karen Nielsen and Rogelio Juárez, in response to a friend’s lament that “‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ was all we had in terms of Advent music.” I enjoyed their playlists, but I am still floored by the suggestion that we don’t have enough Advent music!

I have a personal Advent playlist with over 70 songs, only five of which are variations on the text or tune of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” I often wish that Advent were five Sundays long to fit in all the music.

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As a pastoral musician, I get to pray with the liturgical seasons and their Scripture readings to prepare music for communal prayer on a regular basis. My (much more conventional) Advent playlist includes music that draws me into preparing and waiting in hope for Christ’s coming.

“People, Look East” reminds us to ready our homes for Christ joyfully. “A Voice Cries Out” is strident, insistent and definitely not quiet—much like John the Baptist in his call to turn our lives around in preparation to meet the Messiah. A new favorite of mine this year is a gospel piece by Tom Booth, “Find Us Ready.” “The Angel Gabriel” is an Advent carol from the Basque region of Spain, reminding me of Mary’s courageous “yes” to allow space for Christ in herself so that there might be space for him in the world. I especially like the song’s description of Gabriel with “wings of drifted snow, his eyes as flame.”

I work for a college campus ministry program located at a local Catholic parish, and I am increasingly aware of the ways I need to prepare a space for Christ in my life and in the communities I serve. I love the traditional spiritual about vigilance, “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” It’s rather on the nose for university students this time of year: “Children, don’t get weary ‘til your work is done!”

As a college and graduate student, immersed in finishing my coursework before Christmas, I focused on the “preparing” aspect of Advent.

As a college and graduate student, immersed in finishing my coursework before Christmas, I focused on the “preparing” aspect of Advent. But after I finished graduate school, I found a new appreciation for the “waiting” aspect of Advent. A good Advent reflection for me is watching the winter sky in the moments before the sun rises. It is full of rose and violet shades fading to the dark blue of the night; it is the silence that comes when snow covers the ground and the birds hide somewhere warm. This is the season of “almost there,” of God in the silence and darkness and of quiet joy upon noticing a little light.

I spent my first two Advents after graduate school in Ireland, where the sun didn’t rise until late in the December morning. I often watched the sky on the walk from my lay community’s house to the parish where we worked. I still need to practice waiting in silence to meet God, even as I prepare Christmas ensembles and send students off in the last few weeks of the semester.

I tend to like haunting melodies and minor keys for Advent.

Sometimes I practice waiting much like the speaker in “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening”: I just pause to watch the snow fall and appreciate the silence. Audrey Assad’s “Slow” captures this waiting aspect of Advent. She sings,“Faith is not a fire as much as it’s a glow,/ A quiet lovely burning underneath the snow,/ And it’s not too much/ It’s just enough to get me home./ ’Cause love moves slow.” The pace of this season can seem endless when I am in the middle of one.

I have always liked the way “My Soul in Stillness Waits” evokes the steady pace of walking or the swaying steps of a donkey. The long, held notes of “Patience, People” join the singers to the longing of the prophet as they sing of patience. The Piano Guys’ rendition of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” for piano and cello captures the intense longing that can accompany waiting for something (or someone) important. A contemporary folk version of “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night” tells a pilgrim to hope in the light about to dawn.

I tend to like haunting melodies and minor keys for Advent, but there are many songs that evoke the joy for which we wait with hope during this season. Paul Manz composed “E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come” when his toddler was near death, yet the music is most insistent on the words: “Rejoice on earth, all ye that dwell below, for Christ is coming soon!”

Vienna Teng’s “The Atheist Christmas Carol” ironically speaks of grace and divine interventions; but the words “Don’t forget: I love, I love, I love you,” remind me of how each of us is loved by God. What else is God saying to us as we prepare to meet Christ?

“The King Shall Come” is also a song of joy. It has a contemporary setting but is a very old text. It reminds me of the monumentally important reason that we celebrate Advent, Christmas or the rest of the liturgical year at all: God came to be with us, to be us, and by so doing to save us for eternity. It ties the image of Jesus as a vulnerable infant, for whom we sing lullabies, with the image of Jesus as an adult who chooses suffering in order to save us. And as we watch the horizon at Christmas, morning dawns and the King arrives. We will greet Christ anew “soon, and very soon!”

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Joe Mcmahon
10 months ago

Last Sunday, our cantor chose "Wake O Wake and Sleep No Longer," that is, "Wachet auf uns die Stimme," written in the late 1500's by Philipp Nicolai, with (by one count) fifteen scriptural allusions in its three stanzas. In the translation by Christopher Idle, "We feel his footstep near, the Bridegroom at the door," Also: "Zion hears the sound of singing, her heart is filled with sudden longing." God bless the hymn-writing pastors in Evangelical Germany centuries ago and the English Christian translators of the past 200 years. OCP again puts riches in the pew books.

Mary Rees
10 months ago

Thank you for the playlist. I am unable to go to church and the music and article blessed me greatly.

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