Advent v. Christmas Hymns

Since I’ve been on the topic of liturgies and Advent season, I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about Advent and Christmas hymns in corporate worship. Specifically, because I have been helping our church select the psalms and hymns each week, I’ve been miffed at the dearth of solid Advent hymns in relation to Christmas hymns.

There are plenty of great Christmas hymns in hymnals, but few great Advent hymns by comparison. Note the distinction: Advent hymns are those that are anticipatory in nature, looking toward the glorious redemption that Immanuel, the incarnate Son of God, will bring to His people. Many of these include earnest prayers for Immanuel to come to redeem His people (e.g. O Come, O Come, Immanuel; Come, Thou Long-expected Jesus). Christmas hymns, by contrast, are celebrations of the accomplished fact with references to “today,” “tonight,” or the angels and shepherds. [Aside: While I’m on the topic of Christmas hymns, what’s up with all the theologically unsound ones? Away in a Manger and Once in Royal David’s City, just to name two, are biblically iffy for one reason or another.]

Good Christmas hymns are very appropriate for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but I find singing them in the weeks before Christmas to be awkward. I’m thinking here, for example, of Good Christian Men Rejoice, What Child is This (one of my favorites), O Little Town of Bethlehem, or even O Come, All Ye Faithful. I recognize that Christ was already born two thousand years ago, but in the season leading up to a day of celebrating Christ’s birth, it is appropriate to look ahead to that Christmas day with joyful anticipation, and to have our songs reflect that.

My point is that I wish there were more Advent hymns that are appropriate for corporate worship in the weeks leading up to Christmas. There are only so many times we can sing Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, How Lovely Shines the Morning Star, or Of the Father’s Love Begotten. Further, there are only a few good options that incorporate scriptures like Psalm 24, Isaiah 9, 11, or 40. Appropriateness also includes the words matching the music as well, which would disqualify some options. For example, we are singing To Us a Child of Hope is Born this week, but to the tune of O For a Thousand Tongues since the accompanying tune in the Red Trinity hymnal is an unfortunate sentimental diddy.

I wish I could write hymns, because writing an Advent hymn would near the top of my list this time of year. Does anyone have any suggestions for other Advent-appropriate hymns? Preferably ones that would sound good with a piano/flute or organ/string quartet accompaniment.

Editorial note: I know that song titles are to be placed in quotation marks, but since I was listing many consecutively, I omitted them for better readability.

3 thoughts on “Advent v. Christmas Hymns

  1. Joel, good post. I too have been miffed at the dearth of good advent hymns. But then I also have to remind myself that although expectation is a theme of the service, the gospel is still the main theme, and there's no gospel without the birth of Jesus. It has to be true in the sermon, so it might as well be true in the hymns.But still, your point is well taken.

  2. I agree with your thoughts and found the same problem when trying to select Advent Hymns to play on my flute for our Advent Walk a few years ago. The only two I came up with were the two you mentioned and it really drove home the point to me. You need to become a hymn writer.

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