In the liturgical tradition in which I am finding myself more at home as times go by, Advent is a distinct season of about a month leading to Christmas. The four Sundays of Advent are the four immediately before Christmas.
Advent is a call to slow down and prepare our hearts for Christmas as carefully as we decorate our homes. Hence, it is counter to the commercial culture in which Christmas begins as soon as the Thanksgiving feast is cold, or even earlier. The all Christmas music radio stations may begin in November. Then we have black Friday, small business Saturday, cyber Monday, and giving Tuesday—all in a span of under one week. That just doesn’t generate Christmas spirit in me.
Churches that follow the lectionary, pre-selected scripture readings used widely in much of Christianity, have a countdown to Christmas. It starts with Jesus’ promise to come again, then comes John the Baptist, ever pointing us to Jesus, and then, spread over a three-year cycle, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the angel Gabriel, and Mary and Joseph; all from the Gospels. The drama is carefully building toward the birth of Jesus the Messiah.
Accordingly, the hymns of early Advent lean toward “O Come, O Come, Immanuel,” “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” “On Jordan’s Banks the Baptist’s Cry,” “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” and versions of Mary’s song, the Magnificat. That is a beautiful approach, one I wholeheartedly endorse.
Yet I believe there is no need for true Christmas hymns/carols to be held off until Christmas Eve and the Sunday following. That puts worshipers in a strange place. We have to squeeze a glorious treasury of Christmas praise into just two or three services. It can’t be done! The canon of Christmas music is too large and wonderful for just two or three services. Our best singing of these glorious anthems is in our own congregations. My favorite hymnal, “Glory to God,” has almost 50 Christmas hymns and songs. That is about twice as large as its Advent section.
My modest suggestion is this: let’s sing some of these great Christmas hymns on Advent Sundays, geared to the building drama of Advent preparation. Not all of them; some of them. Let’s keep some, like “Go, Tell It on the Mountain,” for actual Christmas season. But others can easily be sung in Advent as we move forward in our preparations for Christmas. On Advent Sundays, I suggest that Advent hymns be used earlier in worship with Christmas hymns and songs coming later in the services and more so in the second half of Advent. Judiciously including some Christmas hymns before December 24 won’t ruin the keeping of Christmas. After all, we are hearing every kind of holiday music in the malls, markets, and stores (I even hear them when I jog in my local recreation center). I put some of my favorite Christmas CDs in my car in early December. That saves me from radio sets that might sandwich “O Holy Night” between “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Some of my favorites include the Christmas section of Handel’s “Messiah,” Pentatonix, The Carpenters, John Rutter, Amy Grant, and Michael Card. These CDs get me ready for Christmas, even as I listen (and sing along) in Advent.
Advent rightly points us to and prepares us for a joyous Christmas. There is not a harsh divide between them; both are filled with wonder and awe. I want to honor both, not blurred, but in some ways overlapping to the glory of God and working together to proclaim “this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”