A Feast for the Senses

Advent Music
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As a church musician, I typically begin working on Christmas choral pieces in August. It is a longer process, as a choir must continue to prepare for regular Sunday liturgies, as well as feast days and other church events. It requires an early start to be ready for Christmas services.

That is all to say that I start singing Christmas music in August. Every year. The songs get in my head and heart. There’s no stoppin’ it! This perhaps skews my view on seasonal music.

I think most of us dislike the onslaught of holiday ambiance that stores display before Halloween has passed. In fact, as I sit here writing these words, I just went to a local grocery store where they were putting the Christmas merch out, today, October 27!

Like the Great Tree Debate, when to listen to Christmas music can be a fiercely debated topic.

The reality is that Advent lasts until Christmas Eve. While there is no morally right or wrong answer as to when your tree goes up or your Pentatonix holiday mix starts playing, our struggle is to keep our minds and hearts in Advent during Advent. And that means trying to hold Christmas at bay as much as we can.

Advent music is some of my favorite spiritual music. Lyrical and longing, often in a minor key, full of hope. With only four short weeks for these songs, I try to make the most of it. In my home, I don’t totally exclude Christmas music during Advent, but I try to keep it to a minimum, especially the first two weeks. By Gaudete Sunday, I listen to more Christmas Day-type music, usually songs that involve Rudolph, Frosty, and Santa. After all, Christmas Day is only the beginning of Christmas.

Exactly how long does Christmas last? Well, the Twelve Days of Christmas will take you from Christmas Day until Jan. 6, Epiphany (We Three Kings and all), but the Catholic liturgical calendar takes the Christmas season just a little further. The liturgical season of Christmas runs until the Baptism of our Lord, usually the second Sunday of January. That brings us neatly to the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry.

So you can see, if we start listening to Christmas music on Nov. 1, most of us will be totally burnt out by Dec. 25, and Christmas Day is only the first day of the Christmas season!

Want some options for music during Advent? I promise there is more out there than just “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”.

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  1. Handel’s Messiah – While Handel’s Messiah is probably best known for the Hallelujah Chorus commonly heard near Christmas, it isn’t really Christmas music. The Messiah begins with the prophecies of the coming of the Savior, moving to the birth of Christ, then to his suffering, death, and resurrection. It is a magnificent sacred choral work. The Messiah was meant to be heard in its fullness, beginning to end.

However, the first 14 songs are perfect Advent listening (and beyond!). From the stirring tenor crying out “Comfort Ye, My People” to the hair-raising awe of the Hallelujah chorus, Handel’s Messiah is a perfect musical meditation for Advent. You can even join me and get out your libretto and sing along!

I love giving a good recording of Handel’s Messiah as an Advent gift. Although with all the new technology, I have found it is much harder to make a gift of music when everything is streaming. For recordings, I prefer smaller ensembles for The Messiah verses a huge choir. As big as the chorus sections are, the work as a whole has an intimate air about it.

Discover, or rediscover, Handel’s Messiah this season!

2. Prayerful Music Reflection – Another option to make music a more reflective experience is to learn the stories behind some hymns and songs. There are several books out there that cover hymns in general, or Christmas songs in particular.

One of my favorite Advent choral pieces is “E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come”. It is a beautiful, stirring piece of music all by itself. But the story behind the composition makes the piece that much more impactful. Paul and Ruth Manz wrote the piece in 1953 when their three year old son was critically ill, perhaps dying. Although the child would recover, the song – based on the book of Revelations – was a statement of faith by the couple, of implicit trust in the will of God. The story behind the song makes an already moving work almost soul shattering. Do yourself a favor and listen to this powerful song. “E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come” words by Ruth Manz, based on Revelations music by Paul Manz

Peace be to you and grace from him
Who freed us from our sins
Who loved us all and shed his blood
That we might saved be
Sing Holy, Holy to our Lord
The Lord, Almighty God
Who was, and is, and is to come
Sing Holy, Holy Lord
Rejoice in heaven, all ye that dwell within
Rejoice on earth, ye saints below
For Christ is coming, is coming soon
For Christ is coming soon
E’en so Lord Jesus, quickly come
And night shall be no more
They need no light nor lamp nor sun
For Christ will be their All!

3. Make an Advent Playlist – The ease of streaming can make giving a gift of music more problematic, but it sure makes listening to music yourself a lot easier! There are many streaming services that allow you to make your own playlists. An added bonus is exploring music a little off the mainstream path, which can open up your playlists in new ways. I have discovered a few new albums of Advent music that help me to have a full playlist. I love standards like:

  • “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (Pentatonix)
  • “Gabriel’s Message” (I have versions from Sting, Matt Maher, and a standard choral arrangement)
  • “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” (Fernando Ortega)
  • “Breath of Heaven” (Amy Grant – I know this one gets hotly debated, but I love it. I think it really captures the gentle humility and firm trust of Mary. I cry every time I sing it.)
  • “I Saw Three Ships” (Sting)
  • “Winter White Hymnal” (Pentatonix)
  • The Nutcracker (because we are usually neck-deep in ballet)
  • “Dona Nobis Pacem” and “A Christmas Jig” (Yo-Yo Ma)
  • The Wexford Carol (Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma – one of the most haunting, perfect performances)

To these more common songs I have discovered several less known Advent albums

  • Advent Volume I – The Brilliance
  • December Vol. 2: Songs of Advent – Robbie Seay Band
  • Advent Songs – Sojourn
  • Messenger Hymns: Advent – Matt Boswell
  • Advent – Young Oceans

And so much more! There’s a whole wonderful world of meaning music for Advent. Add some to your playlists this season!

The Advent Calendar

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Advent Calendars are a fun and easy way to enter into the spirit of Advent. Most calendars start on Dec. 1, often several days after Advent has actually begin. However, that is a minor flaw.

Chocolate calendars are the most common, but there are increasingly more options out there. We have an almost 20 year old Playmobil Advent calendar that our boys have almost worn to pieces. There are Lego calendars for the kids and wine calendars for the grown ups, among others! I am super excited this year: my mother gave us a reusable, nice wood and tin Advent calendar with little drawers we will fill ourselves. I can’t wait to put it to use!

The anticipation of opening each box or drawer or window and seeing what is inside helps us to remember that we wait, hope, and get excited for what is to come!

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