By Ken Myers
Each year, the Church celebrates the beginning of its new year with prayers, Biblical readings, and hymns that herald the end for which all things were created and toward which all of history is moving. During these weeks, the secularized culture around us anticipates the imminent festival of Christmas within a framework of sentimentality and consumption. But the Church, in honoring the season of Advent, situates its celebration of Christ’s birth within a story that is simultaneously more glorious and more mysterious. If ever the common devaluation of the word “awesome” is to be mourned, it is during Advent.
The music of Advent conveys a sense of that glory and mystery. Consider the Introit traditionally chanted or sung on the Fourth Sunday in Advent: In words taken from Isaiah 45 and Psalm 19, the Church has commenced its celebration of the Eucharist on that Sunday with a plea and a declaration: “Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open and bring forth a Saviour. The heavens declare the glory of God: and the firmament sheweth his handy-work.”
In Latin, this text begins with the words “Rorate coeli,” which is the title of many musical settings of these words. Composers often capture in musical form the sense of expectant urgency in this text. Consider this animated presentation of this Advent affirmation by William Byrd, one of the greatest of the early Anglican composers.
Lutheran Heinrich Schütz, the greatest German composer before Bach, also captured the spirit of Advent eagerness in his setting of Rorate coeli.
The hymns of Advent — which our children should learn to perceive as a central part of the Church’s folkways — include many expressions of eager anticipation of both comings of our Lord. In singing these hymns, we travel back in time to imagine the longing of Israel awaiting (in Charles Wesley’s words) its “strength and consolation, [the] hope of all the earth.” That phrase is from Wesley’s “Come, thou long-expected Jesus,” first published in his Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord (1744). As every good Advent hymn should do, it refers to both comings of our Lord, with numerous biblical allusions. The first and second stanzas reflect the longing of ancient Israel for a Redeemer. The third stanza connects Christ’s rule of all things with his rule in us, an idea picked up in the last stanza with the reference of the presence of the Holy Spirit in us, coupled with an anticipation of our ascent to the presence of God.
“O Savior, rend the heavens wide!” is a less well-known Advent hymn. Written not long after the Reformation by a German Roman Catholic, the text echoes the Rorate coeli in its petition to Christ to “Come down, come down with mighty stride. Unbar the gates, the doors break down; unbar the way to heaven’s crown.”
One of the earliest Advent hymns in the Church’s history is Veni, redemptor gentium (“Come, Redeemer of the nations”). This text is the work of the fourth-century bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose, best known to contemporary Western Christians as the man who baptized Augustine. Less well-known is his role in enriching the music of the Church. Ambrose recognized the power of hymnody to shape the hearts and minds of faithful believers, as well as to challenge theological errors (his nickname “Hammer of the Arians” was not for nought). In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther paraphrased Ambrose’s Veni, redemptor gentium in German; later, it was translated for use by English-speaking Lutherans (and grateful Anglicans) as “Savior of the nations, come.”
“The Advent of our King,” written by the French priest and educator Charles Coffin (1676-1749), is a concise summary of key Advent themes. It summarizes the redemptive goal of Christ’s first coming: “The everlasting Son incarnate deigns to be; himself a servant’s form puts on, to set his servants free.” And later, the hymn anticipates the eschatological crisis of the second coming: “As judge, on clouds of light, he soon will come again, and his true members all unite with him in heaven to reign.”
Charles Wesley’s “Lo! he comes, with clouds descending” is surely one of the most powerful Advent hymns. Among Wesley’s many hopeful affirmations in this text is the recognition of the truth of the continuing fact of the Incarnation: “Those dear tokens of his passion still his dazzling body bears, cause of endless exultation to his ransomed worshippers: with what rapture gaze we on those glorious scars!” Now there’s a sentiment you won’t hear in the holiday music piped into stores in December!
Finally, one of the most familiar of Advent hymns also has the most interesting history. In its earliest form, “O come, O come, Emmanuel” may date back to a community of fifth-century Jewish Christians. The first translation in English appeared in John Mason Neale’s The Hymnal Noted (1851). In Neale’s version, the first verse began with the words, “Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel.”
Many hymnals include seven verses, each of which addresses the Messiah with a different Biblical name: Immanuel, Wisdom, Lord of Might, Branch of Jesse, Key of David, Morning Star, and King of Nations. Before these seven verses became a single hymn — perhaps as early as the twelfth or thirteenth century — they were part of Advent liturgies in the week preceding Christmas. One of the verses was sung on each night beginning on December 17th, through the 23rd. They were chanted in evening Vespers services, just before the singing of the virgin Mary’s own song of Messianic anticipation, the Magnificat, and repeated again after the Magnificat was complete. This liturgical placement of a short text before and after a long one is called an antiphon, and because each of the texts began with the interjection “O”, the set of seven texts came to be known as the “O antiphons.”
Unfortunately, many churches — even those that are more liturgically minded — don’t savor Advent’s hymnody as much as they could. Perhaps while we struggle to keep Christ in Christmas, we should also be conscientious about keeping Christmas in the context of Advent.
Ken Myers is the host of the Mars Hill Audio Journal and music director at All Saints Anglican Church, Charlottesville. He writes regularly about hymnody and sacred choral music at canticasacra.org and in Touchstone magazine.