Best Advent Hymns

Best Advent Hymns December 3, 2012

In seminary, I took a class from then-provost-now-president Richard Mouw. He began every class with a meditation on and then singing of a hymn, which he prefaced with the statement that much of the best theology of the history of the church is archived in our hymnody. (I could add that some of the church’s worst theology is also catalogued there.)

Sure, “A Mighty Fortress” is good, if you’re into that kind of thing. And there’s a plethora of Easter hymns that joyously proclaim resurrection. But I’ve always thought that the hymns of Advent are the most theologically articulate and nuanced in the corpus of hymnody.

That was reaffirmed to me last night when, breaking from the tradition of not singing cover songs, we at Solomon’s Porch sang “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” in which we find this beautiful verse:

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.

I know that many of you are writing posts for the Advent #progGOD Challenge. Well, to prime the theological pump, I invite you to post in the comment section a stanza from an Advent hymn that you find particularly beautiful and/or theologically noteworthy.

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  • 2 stanzas of ‘Joyful is the Dark,’ by the genius Brian Wren, in the Mennonite “Blue Hymnal.”

    1 Joyful is the dark, holy, hidden God,
    Rolling cloud of night beyond all naming:
    Majesty in darkness, Energy of love,
    Word-in-Flesh, the mystery proclaiming.

    3 Joyful is the dark, shadowed stable floor;
    Angels flicker, God on earth confessing,
    As with exultation, Mary, giving birth,
    Hails the infant cry of need and blessing.

  • John D’Elia

    This has always been my second-favorite (you got the best one in your post). It gets at why a Messiah was promised and came; it connects with Israel’s story (which will please the McKightians, including me), but doesn’t neglect the promise of universal blessing through them; and it places release from “fears” before “sins” in describing the tangible impact of Jesus’ coming. It’s beautiful and meaningful.

    Come, Thou long expected Jesus
    Born to set Thy people free;
    From our fears and sins release us,
    Let us find our rest in Thee.
    Israel’s Strength and Consolation,
    Hope of all the earth Thou art;
    Dear Desire of every nation,
    Joy of every longing heart.

    • John D’Elia

      Um, I meant McKnightians.

  • Phil Miller

    I always appreciate these lines from “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”. The original poem was composed towards the end of the Civil War, and it was a reflection on the death of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife and his son’s being injured in the war. “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep” is kind of the message of the OT prophets in a nutshell.

    And in despair I bowed my head
    “There is no peace on earth,” I said,
    “For hate is strong and mocks the song
    Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

    Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
    “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
    With peace on earth, good will to men.”

  • Tony, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is my favorite Advent hymn, and I was surprised my church did not sing it yesterday, especially since we had a visiting choir. Maybe next Sunday.

    The passage you took from the song is the one that just happens to touch my heart the most. Over time there have been some alteration done to old verses as well as new editions. The following, which I am not sure is addition or alteration, is very similar to the one you posted:

    O come, Desire of nations, bind
    All peoples in one heart and mind;
    Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
    Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

    Beautiful stuff.

  • Cathy Mia Kolwey

    Sages, leave your contemplations,
    brighter visions beam afar.
    Seek the great Desire of Nations,
    You have seen his natal star.
    Come and worship,
    come and worship,
    worship Christ the Newborn King.

  • Stephen Hood

    Charles Wesley’s “Lo! he comes, with clouds descending” sung to the hymn tune “Helmsley” by Augustine Arne. This hymn is my favorite hymn of the entire canon not only during Advent but anytime. I have a hard time thinking of a better hymn (#57 in the Episcopal Church Hymnal 1982). It is especially wonderful sung by a cathedral choir although my congregation does a damn fine job of lifting their voices in song. For the uninitiated it goes like this:

    Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,
    once for our salvation slain;
    thousand thousand saints attending
    swell the triumph of his train:
    Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
    Christ the Lord returns to reign.

    Every eye shall now behold him,
    robed in dreadful majesty;
    those who set at nought and sold him,
    pierced, and nailed him to the tree,
    deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
    shall the true Messiah see.

    Those dear tokens of his passion
    still his dazzling body bears,
    cause of endless exultation
    to his ransomed worshipers;
    with what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture
    gaze we on those glorious scars!

    Now redemption, long expected,
    see in solemn pomp appear;
    all his saints, by man rejected,
    now shall meet him in the air:
    Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
    See the day of God appear!

    Yea, amen! let all adore thee,
    high on thine eternal throne;
    Savior, take the power and glory;
    claim the kingdom for thine own:
    Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
    Thou shalt reign, and thou alone.

  • Comfort, Comfort You My People
    Johannes Olearius, 1671

    Fits so well with the Lectionary text for this Sunday…

    Comfort, comfort you my people,
    Tell of peace, thus says our God;
    Comfort those who sit in darkness
    Bowed beneath oppression’s load.
    Speak to Jerusalem
    Of the peace that waits for them;
    Tell them that their sins I cover,
    And their warfare is now over.

    For the herald’s voice is calling
    In the desert far and near,
    Bidding us to make repentance
    Since the kingdom is now here.
    O that warning cry obey!
    Now prepare for God a way;
    Let the valleys rise in meeting
    And the hills bow down in greeting.

  • revsharkie

    I have a couple favorites. Eleanor Farjeon’s “People, Look East,” set to a nice traditional French carol tune, is wonderful, but hard for my congregation to sing. The fourth verse brings us from Advent to Christmas:

    Angels announce with shouts of mirth
    him who brings new life to earth.
    Set every peak and valley humming
    with the word, the Lord is coming.
    People, look east and sing today:
    Love, the Lord, is on the way.

    The other is Mary Anne Parrott’s “One Candle Is Lit,” set to the alternative tune for “Away in a Manger,” CRADLE SONG. It has the advantage of five verses that go through the themes of the Advent season, so it can be used week-by-week with Advent candle lighting liturgy, if your church does that.

    Come surely, Lord Jesus, as dawn follows night,
    our hearts long to greet you, as roses, the light.
    Salvation, draw near us, our vision engage.
    One candle is lit for the hope of the age.

    Come quickly, shalom, teach us how to prepare
    for a gift that compels us with justice to care.
    Our spirits are restless till sin and war cease.
    One candle is lit for the reign of God’s peace.

    Come, festively sing while awaiting the birth,
    join angels in dancing from heaven to earth.
    Wave banners of good news, lift high thankful praise.
    One candle is lit for the joy of these days.

    Come, wander where lion and lamb gently play,
    where evil is banished and faith takes the day,
    a babe in a manger to fool the world’s eyes.
    One candle is lit for God’s loving surprise.

    Come, listen, the sounds of God-with-us ring clear,
    and signs of a cross in the distance appear.
    The Word once made flesh, yet the Word ever near.
    One candle is lit for the Christ-birthday here.

    I also lift up Brian Wren’s “When God Is a Child” and Dan Damon’s “like a child” as worthy of consideration. These are all found in the Chalice Hymnal of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), as well as other places, I’m sure.

  • “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”

    He is found in human fashion, death and sorrow here to know,
    That the race of Adam’s children doomed by law to endless woe,
    May not henceforth die and perish
    In the dreadful gulf below, evermore and evermore!

    (the other stanzas are wonderful, too –

    Words: Au­rel­i­us Pru­den­ti­us, 5th Cen­tu­ry (Corde na­tus ex pa­ren­tis); trans­lat­ed from La­tin to Eng­lish by John M. Neale, 1854, and Hen­ry W. Bak­er, 1859.
    Music: Di­vin­um Mys­ter­i­um, Sanc­tus trope, 11th Cen­tu­ry

  • My favorite is definitely “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, but my second favorite is probably the Canticle of the Turning. Here’s the refrain:

    “My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
    Let the fires of your justice burn.
    Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
    and the world is about to turn!”

  • EricG

    Some of these appear to be Christmas rather than Advent hymns. I think the distinction is important. Advent, for example is in part about the darkness of waiting and longing, which often don’t get expressed in many churches today. They are dropped from our worship, along with lament, etc.

  • John McCauslin
  • Joyce Johnson

    As my husband would say, some of the best theology is found in the great hymns of the church. I am always surprised when people are asked which 3 books you would take to a deserted island that no one ever says, the Church Hymnal. I would take that over most of the books ever written, aside from our Bible (modern translation). How could one choose a favorite Advent or Christmas song? That is like saying which of your children do you love most. All the the ones chosen today deserve high praise and plenty of singing during this Advent season.

  • Curtis

    The refrain from Brian Wren’s “When God is a Child”
    “When God is a child there’s joy in our song.
    The last shall be first and the weak shall be strong,
    And none shall be afraid.”

  • Maria K.

    A beautiful image from the last stanza of
    “Savior of the Nations, Come” ( attributed to St Ambrose – 340-397)
    Shining stable in the night,
    Breathing vic’try with your light;
    Darkness cannot hide your flame
    Shining bright as Jesus’ name.

  • James Dowden

    From one that rarely gets sung these days (thanks, no doubt, to squeamishness about those “heathen lands afar”), Thy Kingdom Come, O God:

    We pray Thee, Lord, arise,
    And come in Thy great might;
    Revive our longing eyes,
    Which languish for Thy sight.

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