Last year, in early December, protestors were filling the streets of cities across the country, because Michael Brown and Eric Garner were dead and we had all just found out that no police officers were being indicted.
I was among them. One Sunday afternoon, I walked with members of my mid-size, justice-oriented, multiracial Chicago church and several other nearby churches, to Water Tower Place, one of our downtown shopping malls. All of us were holding signs that said, “Black Lives Matter, ” “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “I can’t breathe.”
When we got there, the building’s loudspeakers covered us with the sounds of holiday music – “Fa-La-La’s” and “Noel-Noel’s.” Our little group walked in silence, a prayerful, “there are no words” kind of silence. But later I started wondering: Why couldn’t we think of any Christmas songs to sing at that moment? Songs about how Jesus’ birth was meant to make the world right, include the excluded, bring justice to the oppressed, usher in a world in which love wins?
What I actually wanted, I realized, wasn’t a Christmas song. It was an Advent song.
Advent, the four weeks before Christmas on the Christian liturgical calendar, is not something, growing up as a good Southern Baptist girl, I heard much about. But it’s something, as an adult, I’ve come to really appreciate.
During the weeks before Christmas, when we’re all frantically trying to have a season that’s merry and bright in the midst of events where innocent people are attacked in Beirut and Bagdad and Paris, and children are being regularly kidnapped as sex slaves, when people are starving, economic injustice is ignored, racism’s running rampant, and refugees aren’t being welcomed, when we’re lonely and overworked, feeling powerless and frightened, and desperately longing for more hope, joy, peace and love in this world, we are Advent people, whether we know it or not.
And we need Advent songs that help us believe Jesus’ coming means that things will not always be this broken, songs that remind us to wait. And hope. To lament, but not give up on love. And to be a part of God’s redeeming work on this earth.
So I made a list. Checked it twice. Cross-checked it with my husband Gary’s list – Gary who, lucky for me, happens to be pastor of worship and the arts at our church. So here are some we’ll be doing in our gatherings in the next four weeks. They don’t all sound like your traditional Christmas carols…but maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe instead of walking through the season in a state of sugar-nostalgia-sentimentality-induced numbness, these songs will help us wake up, “watch and wait.”
Of course we will still be singing some of the classic Advent hymns like “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” and “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” The language in these old hymns is sometimes not inclusive enough for us, but luckily at hymnary.org there are many alternative versions. If you’re interested in fresher, more contemporary musical arrangements of them, you’ll find plenty on the internet, and the musicians in your community might even want to come up with their own, as ours have.
Speaking of hymns, there are also a number of great writers working today who are attuned to peace and justice concerns and inclusive language, whose work you can find in newer hymnals and online. Like Ruth Duck. We’ll be singing her text “My heart sings out with joyful praise” because it reassures us that “our Savior comes to all who weep to wipe their tears away.” And “Sing with the Angels, Gloria, ” by Shirley Erena Murray because it reminds us that peace is coming. (And she actually works the word “premise” into a hymn without it sounding pedantic.)
Peace is the promise, Gloria!
Peace is the premise, Gloria!
Peace that is new where the light breaks through
and the world is one song in Gloria!
On Hope Sunday, traditionally the first Sunday in Advent, our church will be singing this hymn by Ralph F. Smith, pulled from the hard questions of the Psalms.
“How long, O God?” the psalmist cries,
a cry we make our own,
For we are lost, alone, afraid,
and far away from home.
How can we hope? How can we sing?
O God, set free our voice
To name the sorrows, name the pain,
that we might yet rejoice.
One of the songs we’ve sung in the past and will be singing again is “Wait for the Lord, ” a simple Taizé song. It’s the perfect way to re-center in the swirl of holiday consumerism, and the despair over all that’s wrong in the world. If you aren’t familiar with the music from Taizé, a monastic community in France created to be “a ferment of reconciliation in the human family, ” this is a great time of year to become acquainted.
We’ve also discovered a few new songs from bands who are doing some wonderful creative work within the “praise and worship music” genre, work that also reflects a deep concern for social justice and a view of Jesus’ coming as good news for ALL people.
The Brilliance is one of those bands. Their song, “Does Your Heart Break?” feels so right for this season because Advent is about giving us the space to sit in those moments when the suffering of the world is almost too much to bear. Just as the hymn from Ralph Smith does, this song asks the questions that keep us awake at night, like this one:
“When the man said, ‘You are choking me, ’
and he cried out ‘I cannot breathe, ’
Did your heart break?
Does your heart break now?”
For Peace Sunday, the second Sunday of Advent, “Together in this, ” from the house band of EastLake Community Church in Seattle, is a must. A 2014 study from Pew Research revealed that Americans are more polarized than ever, politically and ideologically, and not just at the polls, but in where we choose to live, who we spend time with, who we get our news from. Advent is the time to sound a message of reconciliation and this song is a poignant plea to live another way.
I’ll carry your weight, sister
And you’ll carry mine
We’ll leave the battle far behind
Let love and peace become all that we need
From the band Gungor, “This is Not the End, ” is a great choice for Joy Sunday, the third week of Advent. At first glance this seems like just a happy little song, but then it hits you… this is a message of hard won joy in the midst of all that makes you believe “this is the end.” I have been imagining how powerful it would be to create a liturgy with this song as the congregational response in between a leader reading words of lament.
Gary and I, along with our 20-year-old daughter Hannah, and a few other friends in a band called The Many (essentially the house band of LaSalle Street Church), have also been writing some new songs for Advent & Christmas that we’ll be singing at our church this year.
One of them we wrote after that walk to Water Tower last year, thinking about how God has promised to be in the places where the hurting are, in our “Longest Nights.” It’s both an Advent and Christmas song, and one especially appropriate for a Longest Night Service.
“Room For Us All” is another, which grew out of the realization that “no room at the inn” is the same story we’re hearing in our current headlines, and how, like so many refugees on our planet today, Jesus didn’t have privilege or power or a welcoming bed. At our church, this song will serve as an affirmation that Jesus’ coming transforms our understanding of who’s in and who’s out and a reminder that “we are on this earth to love.”
Several of the songs we wrote came out of reflection on The Magnificat, Mary’s revolutionary poem from Luke 1, and the key scripture reading for the fourth Sunday of Advent, when the theme is Love. In “Holy Is Your Name” we praise God for seeing and loving all who suffer and for ushering in a new day when “the poor will see that all hope’s not lost and grace flows free.”
Finally, a song I have started requesting we sing every year at our church is the amazing gospel song, “Emmanuel” by Roland Pollard. Also inspired by the Magnificat, listen to this version from the Mississippi Mass Choir and try to imagine going through Advent …or Christmas…without it.
Even if none of the songs I’ve mentioned work for you or your congregation/house church/community gatherings, I hope you will find something you can sing with all your heart, in the next four weeks.
And I hope that we will all do some singing that is, as Walter Bruggemann has said, the kind “…which is a refusal to accept the dominant definitions of reality…an insistence that there’s another way to experience the world and there is another way to act in the world.”
You might even get inspired to write a few Advent songs of your own. I certainly hope so. It seems like our world could really use more of them.