Songs for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany
The Advent/Christmas/Epiphany cycle is a time of newness: a new liturgical year begins with the first Sunday of Advent. A new year on the secular calendar begins before the cycle is done. And let’s not forget the new babies in the stories!
Surprisingly, in a time when we celebrate newness, we don’t sing too much that is new. Maybe that’s because there are so many favorite songs; the carols we know we simply have to sing. Let’s face it: the rest of the church year offers very few opportunities to sing “Joy to the World,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
Thus we come to one of the opportunities and challenges of our increasingly secular world. First the opportunity: many people do not know the old familiar carols, do not have the same sentimental attachment to those songs, and will not miss them. There are people who can happily light their Christmas candles without singing “Silent night! Holy night!”
And now the challenge: many of these people wander into our sanctuaries in this season of the year. It may be our one chance to show them that we speak to them, and not merely about some sentimental Dickensian fantasy or Currier & Ives tableau. These are folks who do not believe that Jesus was born “in the bleak mid-winter” and whose image of Christmas has passed somewhat beyond what Charlie Brown was looking for four decades ago.
So here are songs for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany that have been in few (if any) hymnals before. These songs hint at the new directions writers of congregational song are taking as they follow the voice of God. Try to find places in your repertoire for these and other songs, and help your worshipers sing of the Word made flesh in the language of our modern world.
“My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout/Canticle of the Turning”
The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-58) is Mary’s song of joyful expectation, of sure and certain hope as she shares the news of her pregnancy with her cousin Elizabeth, who was carrying in her womb John the Baptist. It is counted as a psalm by the Revised Common Lectionary, just as it was counted among the psalms by John Calvin (if you would like to read more about Calvin’s theology of congregational song, see Liturgy Among the Thorns: Essays on Worship in the Reformed Church in America, Eerdmans, 2008).
But Mary’s words are also one of the great social justice hymns of Scripture. She sings of the mighty being brought down and the humble raised up, of the hungry being filled and the rich sent away empty, of the fantastic way in which God chooses ordinary people to do amazing things. As Rory Cooney puts it in this 1990 paraphrase, God “is turning the world around.” Set to the Irish folk tune STAR OF THE COUNTY DOWN, this text sings of how “My soul cries out with a joyful shout.”
All metrical paraphrases of Scripture are exegetical exercises. The hymnodist has to make choices about form, about dividing the biblical text into stanzas, and so on, which will, invariably, involve judgments about which concepts get emphasized and how ancient ideas originally expressed in Greek and Hebrew get articulated in modern English. The choices here, attached to this tune with a driving beat, make for a song full of excitement, praise, and a challenge to change the world.
While this tune isn’t difficult to learn, it isn’t entirely familiar (though the style may be accessible to many, given the growing popularity of Irish folk bands in recent years). The other issue is the wordiness of the stanzas; a congregation could slow this down too much trying to get the words out. One way to introduce this into worship is to have a soloist (preferably a younger woman) sing the stanzas, and have everyone join in on the refrain. If you are reading the entire gospel account of Mary meeting Elizabeth, you might even have the soloist read Mary’s words in the first part of the Scripture, and then move directly into the hymn after Luke 1:45.
For accompaniment, it is important to keep the tune from getting bogged down. The congregation will, naturally, try to slow things down, but this tune, with this much text, especially needs to move forward. If you have fiddlers and flutists, this could be the time to put them to work in worship.
“Come and Hear the Joyful Singing”
Sometimes, especially when we are celebrating God come into our midst, it can be good to just sing out with praise for the sake of praising. This hymn, with a text by Michael Perry, doesn’t tell the story, nor does it seem to enter into heavy theological reflection, yet it touches on Titus 2:11-17 (“God the Lord has shown us favor”), the nativity story from Luke (“angels of his birth are telling”), Isaiah 9 and 1 Peter 3:22 (“prince of peace all powers excelling”), passages such as 1 Corinthians 15 (“death and hell cannot defeat him”), and the visit of the wise men in Matthew 2 (“come to Bethlehem and greet him”), not to mention dozens of other allusions. This seemingly simple yet rich text invites us to hear and join in the joyous song of the angels.
Michael Perry (1942-1996) was a Church of England vicar and one of the editors and a director of the Jubilate Hymns group in the United Kingdom. In the 1980s, Perry sought to address the issue of secularization in his native country. In an address to the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada in 1989, he spoke of how the traditional Christmas tunes for most people were not sacred, but secular. If these Christmas visitors were going to feel comfortable, and perhaps even be enticed to look further, they would need tunes they recognized as “Christmasy.”
The traditional Welsh tune NOS GALAN is best known—on both sides of the Atlantic—from its pairing with the secular carol “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly.” Perry borrowed the tune to make this fun and frolicking song of praise. Because the tune is familiar and joyous, with the repeated “Alleluia, gloria” refrain, it is a good song to teach to children. Consider having the children lead the congregation in singing this during one of the Christmas celebrations. Because of the tune’s more famous secular text, any number of instrumental arrangements are available. If used at a Christmastide communion celebration, the tune will easily accommodate James Esther’s metrical setting of the Sanctus:
Holy, holy, holy Lord God,
God of power, God of might:
Heaven and earth, filled with your glory,
their “Hosannas” gladly cry.
Blessed is the One who comes now
in your Name, O Lord Most High!
Sing “Hosanna” in the highest!
“Hosanna” to God Most High!
On page 18 the text is set to JOYFUL SINGING by Hal H. Hopson. There is a delightful choral arrangement available from Hope Publishing.
“Blest Are the Innocents”
Finally we come to Epiphany: the season of discovery, the season of realization. While Epiphany quickly moves into Jesus’ baptism and early ministry, the day itself is devoted to the visit of the wise men to Bethlehem (Matt. 2:1-12).
But while we traditionally stop the story with the gifts, and perhaps venture so far as to speak of how the wise men were warned to return by another path, and maybe even how Joseph was warned and fled with Jesus and Mary to Egypt (Matt. 2:13-15), we often neglect to retell the horror of Herod’s angry, fearful reaction (Matt. 2:16-18). It is hard for us to remember that Christmas ends, in a way, with slaughter: God chooses to bring us life and people respond with violence. This is another part of Epiphany, of discovery: discovery about us.
There are many songs—both time-honored and contemporary—that tell the story of the wise men and the gifts, but this powerful text by Sylvia Dunstan focuses on the slaughter of the children. It reflects on how children continue to be massacred, each and every day, for political expediency, because of economic inequities, or simply as the result of societal indifference. Their blood still cries out, as Dunstan wrote, and God is still listening. The final two lines of the text recall Mary’s Magnificat, potentially making nice bookmarks for the twelve days of Christmas.
Sylvia Dunstan (1955-1993), a minister of the United Church of Canada, was just becoming known as a hymn writer when her life was cut short by cancer. This particular text was one of many written at the request of Alan Barthel, Professor of Church Music at Emmanuel College in Toronto, to fill in gaps in hymns for the liturgical year.
Dunstan herself married the text to the Irish tune SLANE, best known as a match for “Be Thou My Vision, O Lord of My Heart.” The text was, no doubt, written for this tune, and there is much to commend it, not the least of which is that the tune will be familiar to or easily picked up by nearly everyone.
In some ways, however, the tune is not entirely satisfactory to me; perhaps because it’s so familiar and we’re accustomed to hearing it connected with a soothing, peaceful text. This is a text that should be given serious consideration for the next round of denominational hymnals, and one that needs a new tune composed for it.
In the meantime, try to find a minor-mode arrangement of SLANE. Consider accompanying it with flutes or recorders and harp, if possible. A muted brass ensemble might be another possibility. After singing this in worship, it is a good idea to have a time of silence before proceeding to whatever might be next. This might come at the end of a set of prayers for our fallen, hurting world, then the silence, then the Lord’s Prayer and a benediction.
All Through the Season
“Dear God, It’s All Too Much for Me to Carry!”
In the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle, we not only celebrate the coming of Christ but also the promised second coming. And we are reminded that we celebrate all of this because we need Christ to come and save us. Advent begins with reminders of the coming judgment and includes prophecies of all that we need to overcome. We have discussed the fact that the cycle ends with a story of death and destruction as humanity’s response to God’s grace. Among those people who do not often come to worship, not to mention those who do, there are many who carry worry, guilt, and despair in circumstances that seem overwhelming. Somehow, in the Advent and Christmas stories, they need to hear that Christ is coming to give them a fresh start too.
This hymn I’ve written speaks to those issues. The first two stanzas examine and lament our role in the downfall of creation and our need for redemption. But this is not an impersonal lament of abstract global issues; the world that is falling apart is in our homes, our businesses, our neighborhoods. In the final two stanzas we find the promise of the Incarnation—“not escape, but a solution.” We take on the “better burden” of discipleship; this is not cheap grace, for we are, in our covenant with God, also in covenant with all believers, and responsible for the care of the world. Christ’s transforming love makes it all possible.
The tune BURDEN POND was composed by Kathleen Hart Brumm, pastor of First Reformed Church (RCA) in Athens, New York, and a composer of music for children and adults. Burden Pond itself is in Troy, New York, and its water was used to power manufacturing mills in the nineteenth century. The tune’s even, almost chant-like stepwise movement makes it very simple for congregations to learn. Consider using it as part of your congregation’s act of confession and assurance: begin with the first two stanzas of the hymn as your prayer of confession, followed by specific confessions or silent prayer, then the assurance of pardon, followed by the final two stanzas of the hymn.