I know we’re in Advent, (my latest Advent reflection is here) and -for me, anyway- nothing captures the sense of longing and urgent anticipation of this season than O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. I also like O Come, Divine Messiah very much. Some of you may remember I vocally murdered it on one of my Advent Podcasts from last year.
But I think my three favorite Christmas Songs are Angels We Have Heard on High, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (I am partial to the French Carols) and, finally, We Three Kings.
The first makes me giddy; the rolling descent of the “Gloria” taken up by the breathy “in excelsis Deo” has seemed since my childhood to be the nearest thing to real angel song -to the real heavenly herald of that night- that my imagination can grasp.
Angels, we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plane
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strain:
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
It captures the psalms, where mountains clap, and cedars shout and dolphins and all water creatures praise the Lord!
The second is the solemn hush; we are so buried in sentiment in this season -both religious and secular- that we can easily forget how much peril accompanied the Nativity of the Lord. Mary and Joseph were away from home, traveling hard roads. A king went slaughtering after them, and the men from the East found another route home. And there has been, ever since, hard roads and peril. It is no light thing to deliver humanity from itself. Let All Mortal Flesh is a song suitable for any time -at least I sing it anytime- but we need to really hear it at this time of year, and to understand that it is a song of deliverance, and of exorcism:
Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way
As the Light of Light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away
And the third, well, I really fell in love with We Three Kings when I heard
The Roches* haunting recording of it (Track 13), but even before then, I always appreciated the lore of it; the short verse-by-verse bios exploring the meaning of each of the gifts presented to the Newborn King, and the wonderful refrain which moves forward in a manner that almost replicates the herky-jerky movement of the camels, “westward leading, still proceeding…”
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb
O Star of Wonder, Star of Night,
Star with Royal Beauty Bright,
Westward Leading, Still Proceeding
Guide us to the Perfect Light.
Speaking of Christmas Music, a few weeks ago I mentioned that the Benedictines of Mary, who are growing very quickly into a sizable monastic community without a monastery, had released a new CD of Christmas music** as a fund-raiser. Today I got my copy and I must say, this is some very lovely stuff. It begins with Angels We Have Heard… but then mixes well-known hymns with lesser-known classics, a bit of Gregorian Chant and several wholly new songs written by the nuns, one of whom is an accomplished musician and composer. Their recording of The First Nowell is gorgeous, but I also loved Of the Father’s Love Beginning, Dies Est Laetitiae and their hushed, reverent Silent Night gave me goosebumps; it sounds the least “polished” and the most personal.
Actually, I loved the whole album of 23 songs, and you might, too.
Related: What is your favorite psalm?
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