Advent hymns shouldn’t be penitential

Not about psalms this time, but Advent hymns

I’m stepping outside my comfort zone to comment on some of the other music you might be considering using over the Advent season. (I think the only other time I’ve done this was in the blog on wedding music.)  This is because I realised when I was writing my Gentle Guide to the Christmas music that it didn’t really cover Advent, even though I have strong opinions about the hymns we have at this time of year.

Woman at desk, man standing in front
Volmar asking why I’m going off-topic
Advent is not another Lent

Too many people seem to see Advent as a mini-Lent, where the music should be penitential, but there are various clues around indicating that this should not be the case.  In the first place, we don’t lose the Alleluia during Advent.  This is very important!  In Lent it is not allowed to pass our lips from Ash Wednesday until the Easter Vigil, but during Advent, we sing the Alleluia verse every week.  We do not say or sing the Gloria during Advent, just as we don’t during Lent, but I think this is more to make us miss it and be happy to sing it on Christmas or Easter night (though it’s a nuisance for music directors because then the congregation always gives the impression of never having sung it before, which is really not what you want to happen with what is meant to be a shout of praise).

Advent is for getting ready

Advent is a time of preparation, but joyous and very focussed preparation.  I’ve talked before about it being like a mini-pregnancy.  Just as, in our own families, we don’t talk about the coming arrival until it’s obvious or even hard to miss (my mother-in-law’s rule for this was that you make sure you tell people before they tell you), you can’t expect the Church to keep celebrating the growth of the baby until the late stages when the end is in sight.  And anyway, we have to telescope the Lord’s whole life into our annual cycle (even if we have three different sets of readings), so we can’t dwell too long on any bit of it.  So we have the Annunciation in March, and then we don’t think about the baby as such, because we are celebrating and considering his adult life and work,  until Advent, when his arrival becomes our overwhelming consideration.

Practical preparations….

How do we prepare for the arrival of a baby?  We get everything ready, the clothes, the cradle, the towels, the linen.  We start thinking about how it is finally, really, going to happen.  We get our heads round the idea of this new person.  We make arrangements, for the other children, for visitors.  We plan ahead.

Of course, Mary couldn’t do this (though I bet she had a little collection of clothes tucked away somewhere in the donkey’s saddlebags).  She was on the move, unsure when things were going to happen, away from her neighbours and friends, away from Joseph’s home where they were still trying to get used to being married.  But I am sure that she wasn’t spending the time singing mournful songs and beating her breast (painful anyway when pregnant).  We know she trusted God to know what he was doing, so she wasn’t worried or fearful, but she must have been looking forward to meeting this baby who was even more special than all the others.

still knitting even after the baby is born … there’s never enough time to do everything
…and keeping cheerful

Obviously Advent does have some things in common with Lent.  It has purple vestments (except for Gaudete Sunday), and fasting during even six weeks was common at some earlier periods of the Church’s existence.  It’s still the practice of the Orthodox Church.  Even for non-religious people it makes sense to ease up on consumption before the great feast (in all senses) that is Christmas.  But it shouldn’t be mournful.  I think the gloomy aspect of Advent is probably rooted in identifying the arrival of the Lord as the Second Coming, but this can be overdone.  Yes, it’s a secondary meaning, but let’s not lose sight of the primary one.

everyone enjoying themselves; singing sets the mood
Choosing music to match

This is where the choice of hymns is so important.  For the Christmas baby, we get ready our hymns, our Advent carols, our special Alleluias, preparing them with love just like getting all the linen ready.   I am sorry there are so few direct links in the suggestions that follow, but it turned out to be impossible or too time-consuming to find decent recordings on-line.  This is partly because I have decided not to link to choirs that won’t allow women to sing, but also because there aren’t many YouTubes of straightforward choral hymn-singing.  And so many people sing them really ponderously.  But you shouldn’t have any trouble tracking them down, I’ve definitely stuck to mainstream here.

There aren’t very many Advent hymns in common use (it’s only four Sundays, after all).  The greatest of them all, O come, O come, Emmanuel, is in a minor key, because it is focussed on the long yearning for the Messiah.  It’s probably a French tune, fifteenth-century, and based on chant, so modal.  But please note the words of the chorus : Rejoice, rejoice!  This is not meant to be a dirge!

Two figures in a mediaeval frame
Let’s all sing a melodious (happy) song
Carols for before Christmas, and a bit of Latin

There are even a couple of proper carols that you can use specifically during Advent : Angelus ad virginem and Creator alme siderum, if your congregation is up to singing in Latin.  Plus of course the Salve Regina and any setting of the Magnificat that you like.  These are all fine as pre-Christmas music.

Specifically Advent carols and hymns : French..

Moving on into English, we can take a little European tour, grateful for the traditional pre-Christmas music across the Channel.  Outstanding here are Gabriel’s message (French melody again, more specifically Basque, but so well established in English) and O come, divine Messiah (French traditional, and a real toe-tapper;  Charpentier uses it).

..and German hymns are always a good idea

There are (of course) some great German hymns, different versions of Wachet auf, really good for Advent, and old German hymn tunes to familiar English words like Comfort, comfort, O my people (wonderful rhythm, really dancy), The advent of our King, Of the Father’s heart begottenCome thou long-expected JesusWhen the King shall come again (great tune), and so on, plus more modern ones like  The King shall come when morning dawns.

Modal and minor

If you like modal, there’s See how the Virgin waits for him, which is an old Jewish tune, and Let all mortal flesh keep silent, though I’d keep that one for later in Advent.  Hills of the North rejoice is another one that sounds very minor and then mutates, so I’m tucking it in here with the modals.

Follow the readings

You really more or less have to have On Jordan’s bank for the Second Sunday of Advent, given the readings, but you could also have something Holy Spirit-ish, because it’s all about Jesus’ baptism; or even Breathe on me, Breath of God, which always feels appropriate for baptisms and confirmations.

One or two lovely things to sing in Advent

I would like to put in a word for my favourite Advent hymn, because it feels like a carol : People look east, and I defy anyone to sing it at a decent speed and not feel cheered (you may also end up with an earworm, but it’s a good one).   I’d happily sing that more than once in Advent, and as it happens, that is another great old French tune.  You can also be creative in your choice of other carols.    There’s no reason why you shouldn’t sing It came upon the midnight clear towards the end of Advent and before Christmas.  It has such wonderful words, and it takes a wide view of the period that is Christmas, so it doesn’t feel like jumping the gun as so many carols would because of their stress on Christmas night specifically.  And it has glorious big angels.

mediaeval organ with two people
Volmar and me back on the same page

These are only suggestions, and of course you will have your own favourites.  But keep the music joyful, even if some of it is low-key, and don’t sing it slowly and lugubriously.   I was horrified to see one piece of advice for Advent hymns include the Dies irae, on the grounds that it’s about the Lord’s coming.  Yes but no, I feel.  Waiting for a baby is a joyful time.  We need to get ready, within as well as without, but the Lord himself said we shouldn’t be looking miserable even when fasting.  Lent fasting is penitential; Advent fasting is more because we’re so excited.  Love, the Lord, is on the way, people.  Let’s get ready.

And of course you can have a look at my music (psalms and acclamations for the whole season) with the following links :

– the UK and Ireland

US and Philippines

Australia and New Zealand


And read more about Advent of Year C : joy just round the corner

and The story in the Advent psalms and readings, Year B

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs for The Tablet.