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Musical Musings: Advent

Christmas during Advent?

by Gary D. Penkala

Kevin Eckstrom, a reporter from Religion News Service wrote an article on the controversy about singing Christmas carols during Advent. He quotes a worship leader at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky: "It's snowing here right now in Louisville. Everyone feels Christmas right now, so we figure let's enjoy it to the hilt with all the Christmas songs... and then we'll be done with it."

Apart from the obvious pandering to society's commercialized view of the Christmas season, this atttitude is dangerous in equating worship (particularly liturgical worship) with "making people feel good."

Another pastor, at Christ Lutheran Church in Marietta, Georgia, plans to wait until Christmas for the carols. Eckstrom writes:

Despite what Macy's and Wal-Mart might say, Christmas doesn't start until December 25 [or it's vigil, in the Catholic Church], and in many churches runs past New Year's Day [to the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, in the Catholic Church]. So, during the four Sundays of Advent, (Christ Lutheran Church) will sing Advent hymns, not Christmas ones. The anticipation of those favorite carols is like a 5-year-old waiting for a visit from Santa on Christmas Eve.

The liturgical calendar is divided into various seasons, Advent being the season which begins the liturgical year, our "New Year's."

Advent's true believers say the ancient tradtion is a season of preparation and anticipation, a sort of kinder and gentler version of Lent, the 40 days of prayer and penance leading up to Easter.

Advent has its own songs and traditions — including lighting the four candles of the Advent wreath — and musicians say it would be premature to sing Christmas songs about the birth of Christ before he's actually born.

"It would be a bit like opening your Christmas presents before Christmas morning, like sneaking into the closet and ruining the surprise," said Kathleen Pluth, a Catholic hymnwriter in Washington DC. "It's a bit of a let down."

Added Michael McCarthy, the music durector at Washington National Cathedral, "Would you sing 'Happy Brithday' before someone's birthday? That's basically it."

So what's wrong with a little Advent music? To start, there's not much of it — at least much that is as familiar as Christmas carols. The perennial favorite is "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," based on an ancient 12th century chant. Others include "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" and "Comfort, Comfort, Ye My People."

Pluth, who has written hymns for Advent, is especially proud of her hymn, "On Walls around Jerusalem," (found in CNP's booklet: Hymns for the Liturgical Year by Kathleen Pluth).

Mary Louise VanDyke, the director of the Dictionary of American Hymnology at Oberlin College in Ohio, said hymnwriters are slow rediscovering Advent, which she said has been overshadowed by all the "bright tinsely stuff" of Christmas.

"People are just so anxious to sing Christmas carols that they're smothering the Advent hymns," VanDyke said. "But there's a lot of new activity going on in composing Advent hymn. These aren't old yellowed hymns."

Pluth and others say Advent hymns are actually easier to write than Christmas songs, in part because the sweet sentiment of Christmas has already been captured for the ages. Advent hymns should have a sense of longing, expectation and waiting.

And, said Peter Latona, director of music at Washington's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the type of Advent music that gives him "goosebumps" should also look with hope to the end of time.

"That's what all the good Advent texts have in them — the second coming and the role of Jesus as savior, not just the baby in the crib," he said.

And so we encourge you, particularly during the last weeks of Advent when the pressure becomes greater to succumb to congregational wishes and society's commercialization, to hold fast to the Advent traditions. Fully explore the music of the season, congregational as well as choral, vocal and organ. Narry a "Silent Night" or "Joy to the World" before the Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve.

CanticaNOVA Publications has resources to help your parish's Advent –

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