An old but classic article by Peter Leithart from First Things, on How N.T. Wright Stole Christmas.
Wright made me see the fairly radical difference in tone and content between Advent and Christmas hymns. 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.
“How lovely shines the Morning Star; the nations see and hail afar, the light in Judah shining. Thou David’s Son of Jacob’s race, My Bridegroom and my King of Grace, for Thee my heart is pining.”
Comfort, Comfort Ye My people is a virtual paraphrase of Isaiah 40: “Comfort, comfort ye My people; speak ye peace, thus saith our God; comfort those who sit in darkness, bowed beneath their sorrow’s load; speak ye to Jerusalem, of the peace that waits for them; Tell her that her sin I cover, and her warfare now is over.”
“Wake, awake, for night is flying; the watchmen on the heights are crying; awake Jerusalem at last;midnight hears the welcome voices, and at the thrilling cry rejoices; come forth ye virgins, night is past.”
The refrain O Come, O Come Emmanuel tells is all: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” Advent hymns are about Israel.
They are deeply and thoroughly and thrillingly political. Advent hymns look forward not to heaven but the redemption of Israel and of the nations, the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. When we turn to Christmas hymns, these themes almost completely drop out. How many Christmas hymns mention Israel? Many refer to Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus, but Jerusalem ?