Just as I have for the last few years on Black Friday, as others flitted about catching deals (and still others Jesus-juked them online), I began my spiritual discipline for Advent: listening to Christmas music. It started one year when I noticed that Christmas came and went without much of a fuss in my life. Of course I knew it was important. I probably understood it better on a spiritual level than I ever had. Still, the real experience of the season—preparing my heart, slowing down, and dwelling on the rich truth of Christmas—was not something I’d encountered once I’d left behind the “EHRMAGERD PRESENTS!!!” hysteria of childhood.
I was missing something and I knew it. I felt like I’d lost Christmas. (Cue music from the Peanuts Christmas Special.)
In order to rectify this, the next year I decided to listen to Christmas music. Specifically, I decided to listen to Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas album Songs for Christmas every morning while I did my devotionals from Thanksgiving to Christmas to see what it would do. Kind of an informal Advent practice. And you know what? It worked; I caught a little bit of the Advent spirit.
As I intentionally created reflective space and embraced a disciplined rhythm of focus on the classic hymns and original compositions by Stevens, I found myself drawn into a more worshipful awareness of the miracle of Christmas. I found myself longing for Emmanuel to come, to “ransom captive Israel;” I was excited about the herald of the angels proclaiming the birth of the Savior. When Christmas finally came around, I felt ready to welcome it; my month-long discipline had prepared me. For the first time, I began to see some of the spiritual value of Christmas music.
Since then, I’ve gone on the hunt each year for good Christmas music because, honestly, I hate so much of it. Few things bring out the sentiment and smarm like commercialized Christmas. “All I want for Christmas is You”? False. “Baby, it’s Cold Outside”? So many comments… so many. In any case, I find myself drawn to the classic Christian hymns. And it makes sense. Frosty the Snowman is pleasant enough as a Claymation figure, but who really cares? Santa Clause is coming to town, but unless he’s the heretic-punching St. Nick (whom I’d really love to meet), this also does nothing for me. But Christ coming to “ransom captive Israel”? That’ll move me to worship every time.
Then, on Tuesday, I downloaded it. I was not disappointed.
Here’s a preview:
It opens fittingly with rendition of “Awake My Soul, Awake My Tongue,” which is full of beautiful tinkling piano, light percussion, horns, and melodies that awake you to the worshipful peace that Jesus brings. It closes with a similarly soothing reworking of “Silent Night.”
While the whole albums is gorgeous, for my money the standout tracks are the middle hymns, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” “Comfort, Comfort Now My People,” and my favorite Christmas hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” All three of them capture the Advent spirit Peter Leithart talked about last year:
Advent hymns, as you’d expect, are full of longing, and the language of the prophets. Advent hymns are about Israel’s desperations and hope, and specifically hope that the Christ would come in order to keep Yahweh’s promise to restore His people, and through them to restore the nations.
Latifah Philips’ passionately subdued vocals for “O Come” in particular embody Israel’s passionate longing—that desire for Christ the King, the Savior to appear and end her exile, which then becomes our own.
I could go on for a while here, but if you’re like me in looking to cultivate a sense of Advent anticipation in preparation for Christmas, do yourself a favor and swing by iTunes or the Page CXVI website and pick up the album.