Thursday, December 6, 2012

Advent/Christmas Music

So, as you know, Advent/Christmas music is one of the reasons I can tolerate summer without crying myself to sleep every night. Through out the years, I've come to realize that my favorite Christmas songs are those that both sing about the joy of the incarnation but also speak truthfully of the human condition - that don't just jump right to light and hope without acknowledging that there is also real darkness and despair in the world. So, here are four Advent/Christmas hymns that do that particularly well.

4. O Come, O Come Emmanuel - I mean, how can you not love this song? It's an ancient poem to an ancient tune with a solid liturgical history speaking of a nation in exile waiting for the coming of their Savior and Redeemer. And the way the minor key breaks into a major chord right on "Rejoice!": Perfect. One of my professors spoke of the song as rejoicing in a minor key; I like that idea because I think we all at one time or another have to figure out how to rejoice in minor keys.

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
our spirits by Thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death's dark shadows put to flight.

O come, Desire of Nations, bind
all peoples in one heart and mind;
bid thou are sad divisions cease
and be thyself our King of peace.

Here's the now-split The Civil Wars singing their version:

3. O Holy Night - Not only is "a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices" one of the greatest lines of all time, but the final verse is stunning:

Truly he taught us to love one another,
his law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother,
and in his name all oppression shall cease.

I'll stand by Mariah Carey's "O Holy Night" until the end, but I thought this version was wonderful, even he only sings the first verse.

I mean, Nat King Cole could sing the phonebook and I'd tear up.

2. I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day - This was written by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow during the Civil War. In quick succession his wife died and his son was gravely injured in battle, and it was in the midst of this that he wrote the poem. Placed on the backdrop, the last two verses are especially poignant:

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, goodwill to men. [sic]

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, goodwill to men.

Goosebumps. Some of the more specific verses got left out of the hymn:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
the cannon thundered in the South,
and with the sound the carols drowned,
of peace on earth, good will to men.

Here's the Carpenters singing it out.

1. It Came upon a Midnight Clear - My biggest gripe with most recordings and even versions in hymnals is the cutting out of the middle verses, which to me are probably the best verses in Christmas hymnody.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
beneath the angel strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
the love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
and hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life's crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow.
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing!

That last verse always reminds me of an old crone (like the person carrying a bundle of sticks on the cover of Led Zeppelin IV) as the person walking painfully down the road when she sees the light and sound of this choir of angels and is lost in wonder and joy.

Here's the one and only Mahalia Jackson singing it, albeit with missing verses:

In other news, I have drafts of all my work for the semester done! Now, a bit of editing, a German final (thanks be to God for pass/fail grading), a sermon on Sunday, a bit of worship planning, and you've got yourself a completed semester! See you all in Chi-town/H-town!

I'll say it again: undergrad migration patterns can be primarly tracked from their initial gathering in the fitness center in the first week of each semester to their final gathering in the library the last week of the semester. In between, one has to watch out for tumbleweeds in each of the buildings.

Okay, time to get ready for a presentation this afternoon. Later!


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this post--as I do all your writing, but this one especially. Here's a few reasons why! 1.)I have always loved O Come, O Come Emmanuel. I learned the first verse in Latin (thank you, Mannheim Steamroller CD insert) when I was in 4th grade and performed it as my Christmas Eve (required) solo at our family party. I don't know that everyone got it, but the song has always deeply resonated with me. 2.) O Holy Night makes me weep, every time I hear it. I always felt it was best done by a not-too fancy soprano, like my mom. I can't recall if I've heard Nat King Cole's version of it, and I will have to listen tomorrow, since it's the middle of the night, and it would become very unholy if I woke up my sleeping husband. 3.)I have however, always liked Nat King Cole's version of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear! SO, basically, what I want you to know, is we have the same favorite Christmas songs, which makes me feel very happy and miss you a lot, and also makes me want to listen to I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, since that is the only one I am really not familiar with. Thanks for posting Dave!

  2. THANK YOU! I have been wanting to talk to you about advent and advent music because our church kinda just skips to Christmas and it makes me sad... I really like your line about learning how to rejoice in a minor key. Great stuff.