Advent Hymns

Attending a contemporary church as I do, one doesn’t get the opportunity to sing many Advent hymns.

All Advent songs are hymns, of course, because only the high church celebrates the church year, wherein the four weeks before Christmas are termed Advent, and Christmas proper doesn’t begin until Christmas day.  Technically, Christmas lasts for the next twelve days, ending with Epiphany on January 6, which commemorates the visit of the Magi.  All this gets swept away by the contemporary church as traditional and therefore valueless and replaced with a lot of chatter about how Christ wasn’t really born on December 25 and the Magi wouldn’t have arrived until several years later, which is true but completely irrelevant.

I think this is a loss.  I believe that we need Advent because Advent makes Christmas make sense.  A celebration is better when it comes at the end of a period of waiting.  To understand why Christmas is such a time of joy, we need to first spend a while contemplating what we were missing before.

And so, without further ado, I present two excellent Advent hymns.

Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

People Look East

People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
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.

Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.

Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

The former is by Charles Wesley, the latter by Eleanor Farjeon, whose other well-known song is “Morning Has Broken.”  Between them, they encompass the entirety of Advent: “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” covers the divine side, while “People Look East” covers the human side.

“Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” is about the work of God.  It is a plea for the fulfillment of His promises: bringing His kingdom, freeing us from sin.  The music is serene and dignified, reminiscent of plainsong and that old Advent standard, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” but it swells with the power of God and the importance of the moment.  This is a song that contemplates God.  It invites no human action, for God will start and finish everything that needs to be done.

“People Look East” is about the human response to the anticipated work of God.  Everything is described in earthly terms: the guest, the bird, the rose.  Even the star is seen from earth, beheld but perhaps not comprehended.  The music is upbeat, filled with the human activity.  There is no sense of stress or obligation to the preparations.  They overflow spontaneously from the sheer joy of anticipation.

Contemporary churches don’t sing these songs.  They either sing their ordinary worship choruses right up until the Christmas Eve service or they sing Christmas songs for the entire month of December.  This is a loss.  We lose our chance for anticipation.


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