Advent Is Too Short a Time to Sing All the Songs I Want to Sing

America magazine posted a feature this weekend in which two authors reacted to a priest’s (!) opinion that we only have one Advent song – “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” – by putting together playlists of songs for Advent.

It was a nice idea.

But I was disappointed to see that out of all of the songs on the playlists none were taken from the church’s treasury of Advent songs and carols found in our hymnals (except “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and, oddly, a Christmas song, “Lo, How a Rose”).

Churches through their hymnals give us wonderfully rich collections of Advent music that could – I would hope – enrich our homes and our personal prayer during this season. They contain, if you will, the Advent “playlist” of the praying church. Maybe recourse to a hymnal is hopelessly “conventional” (the article was billed as an “unconventional” playlist). But I suspect that singing things out of hymnals at this point in history is actually counter-cultural.

Personally, I love Advent hymns. My only regret is that we have only four weeks in which to sing them. Ambrose’s majestic hymn, “Savior of the Nations, Come,” fills me with awe; Eleanor Farjeon’s imaginative and poetic “People Look East” is a treasure I look forward to each year. The bell-like cadences of “On Jordan’s Bank” call me to attention, and the lighthearted joy of the French carol “O Come, Divine Messiah,” makes me want to dance. In church today as we sang “Sleepers, Wake!” I felt a surge of energy anticipating the bridegroom’s coming. And even now, I’m looking forward with keen anticipation to singing “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” when Gaudete Sunday rolls around.

These are just a few of my favorites. I am sure Pray Tell readers could come up with many more.

Do most parishes just not sing a variety of Advent hymns, I wonder? With all our big screens and worship aides are we nonetheless suffering from a self-inflicted poverty? If you hear nothing but “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” I guess it’s inevitable that you’ll think it’s the only Advent hymn we’ve got. But what does that say about the state of the art? Are parish ministers relying too much on “the one tune everybody knows” and so not feeding the musical and theological imagination of their people? Or is the Advent season simply too short for a congregation to absorb and recall anything but the most oft-repeated words and refrains?

There are so many wonderful hymns, songs, and chants for Advent (I have not even mentioned “Wait for the Lord” or “Creator of the Stars at Night”) that it actually hurts me to think that anyone could take away the impression that there is only one Advent hymn. Don’t get me wrong. O “Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is beautiful, and it may indeed anchor the season, but it cannot be our only song.

It’s true however that Advent is a compact season. And this year we have only three weeks total, as the fourth Sunday of Advent is Christmas eve. I’ve been grappling with the fact that the Sundays of Advent give us far too short a time to sing all the Advent songs I want to sing. There are only four Sundays of Advent, and Sunday Mass is only one hour in the week.

So I’ve decided to sing some of my favorite Advent hymns at home — around the Advent wreath, at grace before meals, or whenever I can – as a spiritual exercise for the season. I am hoping to let the music engrave the Advent season a little bit more deeply on my heart and allow it to color my everyday life.

Maybe these hymns will become a countervailing inner melody, something more precious than the “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” shopping center tunes the air is full of. When at times it seems I can’t schedule “one more thing” perhaps I can simply allow the music of an Advent song or hymn give voice to the season’s hope and longing, anticipation and joy.



23 responses to “Advent Is Too Short a Time to Sing All the Songs I Want to Sing”

  1. John Kohanski Avatar
    John Kohanski

    The opening hymn from yesterday afternoons Procession with Carols on Advent Sunday at Christ Church (Episcopal) New Haven, CT. Scroll down a bit to see the video. There is no reason not to sing the songs of Advent.

  2. Alan Hommerding Avatar
    Alan Hommerding

    Thank you, Rita!

    I’ve often expressed my personal desire/belief that we should have at least 6-8 weeks of Advent, and was a bit envious when I heard of several free Protestant congregations that had moved Advent I back to November 26th.

    Advent very well may be my favorite season to be a liturgical musician.

    1. Kevin Hehir Avatar
      Kevin Hehir

      Celtic Advent commences November 16th

      1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur

        Do you mean the pre-Christmas fast in the historical Celtic Christian monastic tradition?

  3. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    Indeed, Advent is rich with seasonal hymnody (and propers), and 4 Sundays* is too short to hit everyone’s favorites. And this Incarnationtide, as it were, is the shortest possible in the OF, so Christmastide is likewise short, and many parishioners who travel for Christmas week will only be present in their home parishes for a Sunday liturgy in Christmastide on Epiphany – if your parish habitually treats Epiphany as afterthought to Christmas, with fading poinsettias and music and preaching, this is a great year to reconsider that habit.)

    * Or 3 in some places this year, if Ed Peter’s factual assumption for this post is to be believed (which strains my credulity somewhat):

    1. Paul Inwood Avatar
      Paul Inwood

      I saw Fr Lou Vallone’s original dispensation as printed in his parish bulletin (it was circulated on Facebook). While it appeared superficially to be a pastoral initiative, the thing that stood out for me was that he said the dispensation was only valid if offertory envelopes for both days were brought to the Christmas Mass!

      1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur

        Yeah, I saw that one.

        Of course, the devil’s also in the details: he didn’t say they had to be filled with money, check or bitcoin. Another example of Be Careful What You Ask For.

        In any event, Ed Peter’s blog post refers to *diocesan* acts which, I repeat, strains at least my (admittedly low and gimlet-eyed) credulity.

  4. Lee Bacchi Avatar
    Lee Bacchi

    I know that some parishes are eliminating a Sunday Mass on Dec. 24 and adding another anticipated Sunday mass on Saturday, Dec. 23, but I have heard of no diocese or parish where they are cancelling all Sunday AM Masses on Dec. 24.

    During Advent I listen to several different Advent Lessons and Carols CDs I have, and sing the hymns that I know.

  5. Chip Stalter Avatar
    Chip Stalter

    Wholeheatedly agree that there is plenty of great Advent music in our hymnals beyond O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

    Our parish is reducing from 2 Sunday AM Masses (9am and 11am) to one at 10am plus the Anticipatory Mass on Saturday. They are bringing in a P&W band for the music at the liturgy so that none of the groups will have to do double on Christmas eve (4, 6:30 and 10 pm) liturgies. So our choir at 9am only gets to do 3 Sundays in Advent, even if the parish is getting 4.

    I hope that they inform the parishioners of the music change, so the regular 9 am attendees used to our “traditional” choir are aware.

  6. Jim Pauwels Avatar
    Jim Pauwels

    A few random thoughts:

    The more Hours one prays during Advent, the more opportunities one has to sing wonderful Advent hymns 🙂

    Of course, there is nothing wrong with singing O Come O Come Emmanuel. It can be done in any style – it can be sung a cappella, in unison or in parts, and/or accompanied by organ, piano, guitar or whatever instruments one has handy. But I made it through a couple of masses yesterday without singing O Come O Come Emmanuel so I know it can be done.

    The playlist article in America was interesting insofar as it seems to be targeted to the spiritual-but-not-religious. Rita, I am guessing that is why it mostly skipped liturgical hymns – they’re lists for the unchurched.

    It does occur to me that there are few things more consumer-oriented than a personally-tailored playlist of commercially available recordings. So Rita, I am with you on the counter-cultural value of singing songs from a hymnal.

  7. Todd Flowerday Avatar

    Long ago, a pastor was disturbed I didn’t program O Come O Come on the First Sunday, opting instead for this: Being a social gospel guy, I thought he would approve, but not.

    Among those with expanded Advent musical sensibilities, there may still be an indulgence for sentiment. Don’t get me wrong: I can sing lustily about Love the Rose being on the way, but I don’t want to miss “when race and class cry out for treason and sirens call for war.”

    1. Rita Ferrone Avatar
      Rita Ferrone

      Thanks for your comment about the season requiring more than sentiment, Todd. Agreed.

      Among my prized possessions (along with a set of catechumenate books in Swahili given to me by a grateful workshop participant) is a copy of Come Let Us Worship: The Korean-English United Methodist Hymnal (a gift from persons I once had the honor of accompanying in an educational setting). I cannot read Korean, but found it fascinating to see that the (English) heading for those pages devoted to songs for Advent is this:

      “Prophecy and Justice: Advent.”

  8. Jack Feehily Avatar
    Jack Feehily

    We don’t have a problem with songs that fit the Advent season. In fact we won’t be singing O Come, O Come Emmanuel until Dec. 17th.

  9. Rachel Barber Avatar
    Rachel Barber

    Our hymns for this past weekend were: Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus, The King Shall Come, Beyond the Moon and Stars (with the tune of Before the Sun Burned Bright), and Soon and Very Soon. Next week we’ll be using Curtis Stephan’s Ready the Way, which the assembly absolutely loves. The third week’s notables include Christ, Circle Round Us and Rita’s aforementioned People Look East.. And we’re not singing O Come, O Come Emmanuel. until the 4th Sunday.
    My big complaint about this shortened Advent season is that they had to schedule decorating the sanctuary for the 3rd Sunday of Advent rather than the 4th, so we’ll feel pretty Christmas-y on December 24th in the morning, although the choir won’t be singing until that evening.

  10. Matthew J Meloche Avatar
    Matthew J Meloche

    Lo He Comes with Clouds Descrnding is a necessary part of Advent I…. for me, at least!

    1. Mike Attebery Avatar
      Mike Attebery

      Excellent choice for Advent, Matt!
      Necessary for me would be Thy Kingdom Come, O God which might suffice Todd’s social sentiment as well…

    2. John Henley Avatar
      John Henley

      Wholeheartedly endorse your recommendation, Matthew – sung to Helmsley. But most hymnals contain a very truncated version, albeit retaining elements from all three (possibly four) authors. It began as six verses by John Cennick, was greatly improved by Charles Wesley, then elements of both versions brought together and edited by Martin Madan. It is a great pity that the references to the fate of the ‘goats’ are often omitted. If one produces one’s own hymnsheet, it’s worth considering whether it’s worth offering a different selection of verses to that in most hymn books.
      Here is the fullest version I could easily find:
      The “New Oxford Book of Carols” has probably the longest version currently in print, but I cannot readily lay my hands on my copy.

      [concluded in next post]

      1. John Henley Avatar
        John Henley


        1. Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
        Once for favour’d sinners slain;
        Thousand thousand saints attending,
        Swell the triumph of His train:
        Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
        God appears on earth to reign.

        2. Every eye shall now behold Him
        Robed in dreadful majesty;
        Those who set at naught and sold Him,
        Pierced and nailed Him to the tree,
        Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
        Shall the true Messiah see.

        3. Every island, sea, and mountain,
        Heav’n and earth, shall flee away;
        All who hate Him must, confounded,
        Hear the trump proclaim the day:
        Come to judgment! Come to judgment! Come to judgment!
        Come to judgment! Come away!

        4. 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!

        5. Answer thine own Bride and Spirit,
        Hasten, Lord, the general Doom!
        The new heaven and earth to inherit,
        Take thy pining exiles home!
        All creation, all creation, all creation,
        Travails! groans! and bids Thee come!

        6. Those dear tokens of His passion
        Still His dazzling Body bears;
        Cause of endless exultation
        To His ransomed worshippers;
        With what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture
        Gaze we on those glorious scars!

        7. Yea, Amen! let all adore Thee,
        High on Thine eternal throne;
        Saviour, take the power and glory,
        Claim the kingdom for Thine own;
        O come quickly! O come quickly! O come quickly!
        Alleluia! Come, Lord, come!

        verses 3 & 4 are largely Cennick, the others largely Wesley.

      2. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur

        The Day Is Surely Drawing Near is a similar text that is similarly truncated

        It really helps if the choir collectively wags fingers at the end of the first verse.

        Ted Marier set it to this lovely tune, SEI LOB UND EHR (

  11. Donna Zuroweste Avatar
    Donna Zuroweste

    A wee bit off topic, but love Jim Pauwels’ comment about Hours’ prayers… for any inclined, you can chant Compline with the St. Louis Dominican Priory friars via the Dominican Compline app. It is helping with the shortened Advent season.

    And i confess that i cheated; i started my Advent reflections and prayers a week early this year, since we have no 4th week. I think Christ approves…

    This mystic would love to hear a fuller and deeper range of entering into waiting with unique hymns (if you have the multimedia screens et al). We have a tiny Pauline community that does a few every year (hear no technology), so it can be done…

  12. Paul Schlachter Avatar

    The Advent season is surely full of meaning, so full in fact that we are shuttled from one major theme to another in single weeks. In contrast, retailers drill a single message all the time. When I consider the words for a hymn to send out with my cards just before the season begins, I focus on the second coming. At least what I quote from Laudato Si’ gets through to myself after countless repetitions.

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur

      I fondly remember past singing the choral parts of the immortal setting by Orlando Gibbons for much of the Gospel of the 3rd Sunday of Advent in Year B (which would next be this coming 17 December):

      And, for this coming Sunday, the 2nd Sunday of Advent in Year B, an entire homily can be built on just the very first verse of the Gospel of Mark – how different this εὐαγγέλιον is from the others of its time, and how the entire Gospel of Mark, much of which we will hear proclaimed in the coming liturgical year, can be understood in light of this framing of the war and ultimate victory of Jesus Christ the Son of God – who, in this Gospel, is like some mighty alien force from on high (low Christology this is not) injected with great urgency into our dark world – against and over the forces of sin and Death :

      “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”

  13. Christopher Lazowski OSB Avatar

    This in no longer in season, but here goes nonetheless.

    My community celebrates mass and office in Gregorian chant, and so in Latin (except the readings and, on Sundays and great feasts, the euchology at mass). Advent is the only season when, despite the riches of the Gregorian repertoire, I do miss the treasures of English hymnody. But as this is France, I wouldn’t be getting any of that anyhow!
    My three favorites are “Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending”, “Of the Father’s Heart Begotten”, and “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry”. This last is a bit rich coming from a son of Dom Guéranger; its author, Abbé Charles Coffin, was one of his bêtes noirs. He was a prolific hymn writer, and about 100 of his compositions were included in the Romano-French Paris Breviary of 1736, among them “Jordanis oras praevia”. The English version leaves out some stanzas where the author’s pessimistic Jansenism is particularly evident. There is a certain irony that the work of a priest who was refused the last sacraments on his deathbed because he steadfastly refused to accept the bull “Unigenitus” is now included in official English versions of the Liturgy of the Hours. Time-lapse ecumenism, perhaps?

    This year I was doubly frustrated by the brevity of Advent. However, consolation comes in the form of webcasts. Various places now webcast services, including New College, Oxford, which in my thoroughly prejudiced opinion has the best choir anywhere (but they’re not much good at Gregorian chant). This page contains a link to the webcast of the most recent Advent Carol Service, as well as the Christmas Carol Service: The Advent service has both “Lo He Comes and “Of the Father’s Heart”. The service bookets are online here:–events

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