One of the ways into any season or occasion for me is through music. So I’ve put together a few items over the years that help describe what Advent means so I can better participate in this time. Here they are, with some help from family, friends, and tweeps (Twitter people) and a few notes. I pray they will help you remain in the spirit of preparation and expectancy this last few days before Christmas.
Prelude - December by George Winston [iTunes link]
I’ve loved Winston’s piano music for a long time, and this short episode from his December album captures the longing and quiet of Advent.
Canticle of the Turning - Safety Harbor by Gary Daigle, Rory Cooney & Theresa Donohoo [iTunes link]
This Canticle (“song” in Latin) reminds us that Advent is the time of year when God surprises us by turning the world right-side-up. A provocative thought for our complacent times.
Angelus ad Virginem - Christmas by the King’s Singers [iTunes link]
An amazing British a capella ensemble known for their wide-ranging and unparalleled interpretations, the King’s Singers establish a driving rhythmic beat as the angel appears to Mary, which then explodes into glorious choral harmony.
Wait for the Lord - Songs of Taize: My Soul is at Rest from the Taize Community [iTunes link]
Although described as a “dirge” (!) by one of my students, the drawn-out and ploddingly paced chant hauntingly evokes the emotional content of waiting on God’s salvation.
Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus – hymn by Charles Wesley
A number of good recording exist of this text, usually set to the Welsh Hyfrydol tune. One of my favorite congregational Advent carols.
Turn Me On - Come Away With Me by Norah Jones [iTunes link]
An odd choice? Perhaps. But Jones perfectly evokes the attitude of anticipation, around which Advent revolves. A love song, if you will, to an intimate and desirous God.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel – Christmas by the King’s Singers [see link above]
Another common Advent carol, this one with an exquisite French melody and a text based on the “O Antiphons,” a set of 7 prayers invoking the coming of Christ in the successive nights before Christmas. The linked version, Veni Veni Emmanuel is sung in the original Latin.
Breath of Heaven - Home for Christmas by Amy Grant [iTunes link]
A perennial favorite in my family, the highlight of the album is Grant’s original song from Mary’s perspective. Revealing the struggle for faithfulness of a teenager at drift in a sea of others’ desires, “Breath of Heaven” weaves back and forth between minor and major, embracing at last the One who called her to play a pivotal role in Salvation.
Shine Your Light On Us - Give Yourself Away by Robbie Seay Band [iTunes link]
“O my God, shine your light on us/that we might live.” RSB caught my attention with this song when they played at Refresh ’08. The music is sophisticated and lyrics more compelling than almost any other contemporary Christian songwriters I’m familiar with.
Mary, Did You Know - Good News by Kathy Mattea [iTunes link]
Another song with a focus on Mary. This time, the series of questions heightens the emotional relationship between mother and son, and emphasizes the fragility of Jesus’ life both at his birth and at death.
Ave Maria - Schubert’s setting; from When My Heart Finds Christmas by Harry Connick, Jr [iTunes link]
The traditional Latin text was shoehorned into this Schubert tune to beautiful effect at some point a few hundred years ago. Harry’s spare rendering is exquisite; all the more so for the extended piano solo introduction.
Christmas is Coming - A Christmas Together by John Denver & The Muppets [iTunes link]
Just a quick, fun song in the English tradition…sung by Muppets. A good message to be generous with your alms to those who have less than you.
Esurientes - from John Rutter’s Magnificat [iTunes link]
This lyrical rendering of the Latin text of Mary’s poetic response to Gabriel’s visitation reassures the listener, much as it must have Mary, in the midst of the powerful upheavals and corrections vocalized as God’s work.
Christmas Day - Dido’s contribution to A Very Special Christmas, Vol 5 [iTunes link]
“I shall return, for you, my love/on Christmas Day” surfaces the allegorical interpretation I have for this ballad. In a world where lovers break promises, we wait for the One who fulfills all in the name of Love.
Song for the Hopeful - What A Night! by Harry Connick Jr & Kim Burrell [iTunes link]
If a major theme of Advent isn’t hope, then I don’t know what it is. The choir backup, gospel-jazz flavor, and evident good time all involved goes hand-in-hand with the encouraging lyrics.
Gabriel’s Message - Christmas Songs by Jars of Clay [iTunes link]
A Basque carol originally, “The Angel Gabriel” is popular in Britain but relatively unknown here. I especially love the imagery around Gabriel.
The End is Near - Matthew Clark [YouTube link]
Thanks to JD Walt for this link and song. It’s a great engagement with the apocalyptic flavor of Advent, which we far too often neglect in our shopping and partying.
Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending – arranged by John Rutter for Sing, Ye Heavens [iTunes link]
A traditional hymn emphasizing the second coming of Christ. A plea for God to bring to fulfillment all that was ushered in with the coming of Christ the first time, and the final renewal of creation and humanity: “Christ the Lord returns to reign.”
White as Snow - No Line On the Horizon by U2 [iTunes link]
A contemporary carol loosely based on Veni Veni Emmanuel, its poetry challenging to mine for meaning. I particularly like the imagery of the straight and flattened highway…
On Jordan’s Banks the Baptist’s Cry - sung by St Edmondsbury Cathedral Choir on From Advent to Candlemass [iTunes link]
Another traditional carol, this time focusing on that oft-ignored messenger of the Message, John the Baptizer. I particularly like the imagery of health and wholeness that speaks to so many of us in the winter months.
Wake, Awake, For Night Is Flying - On Jordan’s Banks by John Michael McCluney [iTunes link]
Have you ever stood on the battlements of a castle, or atop a city wall? I can’t imagine what it would have been like to keep watch night after long and lonely night. Yet we are called to cast off our slumber and stay awake for the miraculous and life-giving gift of Christmas!
All Who Are Thirsty - Strong Tower by Kutlass [iTunes link]
Maranatha: Come, Lord Jesus. The ancient prayer finds a driving beat as Kutlass sing their version of this praise-and-worship anthem.
Stay - Zooropa by U2 [iTunes link]
On a somewhat bizarre album, this song anchors the fear, hope, and nonsense that permeates our world. It captures the now-and-not-yet-ness that Advent means with all the complexity and humanity it can grasp.
Tomorrow - October by U2 [iTunes link]
U2 get downright Christological on their 2nd album, as they call for the advent of Christ: “Who heals the wounds? Who heals the scars?…Jesus is coming…”
Prince of Darkness - Indigo Girls on their eponymous album [iTunes link]
My favorite song on my favorite album of theirs, with lyrics that transgress the boundary between light and dark again and again. It expresses both the pain and heartbreak of the world today as well as the hope for a loving Parent who can set all things right…and the need to “reject evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves”…the first step to becoming an Advent people.
Thanks to Christian Scharen for the U2 recommendations and Joseph Matthews for some other suggestions. A related list is available from Bruce Reyes-Chow on the theme of “Hope.”