Advent, which begins December 1 this year, ushers in four weeks of holy longing for Christ’s coming into our dark and broken world to make all things new. With the Old Testament saints and the early Christians alike, we cry, “Come, Lord!” The anticipation that marks the season is both joyful and aching, as on the one hand, we have a sure hope that the Lord is coming, and that’s cause for celebration, but on the other hand, well, we’re tired and weak, and sometimes hope hurts.
Every Advent, my husband and I whip out the Spotify playlist I’ve been building over the years, and we let the music shape our longings toward Christmas, toward new creation. Centuries’ worth of Christian song comes through our speakers to build up our hearts and minds with words and tunes that prepare us to welcome not just Christ’s birth but also the parousia. While I’m not a stickler for “no Christmas music before December 25!,” I have come to appreciate the distinctiveness of Advent and have found something sweet in the waiting. Of course, Advent bleeds into Christmas, and both seasons contain both darkness and light, mourning and gladness—but setting aside a month to linger with the visions of the prophets, the stories of Elizabeth, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Mary, and Joseph, and Jesus and Paul’s sobering warnings of impending judgment can deepen one’s appreciation of the fullness of Christmas and how it fits into God’s bigger story.
People, I think, are generally unaware of the rich body of Advent-themed music that’s available to us. Apart from the classics “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” and maybe a selection or two from Handel’s Messiah, I bet many Christians would be hard-pressed to name a single Advent song.
Well, here are ten hours’ worth! Art & Theology presents an Advent playlist.
There’s intention to the structure of the list, which moves from God’s promise to Abraham that “all shall be well” to ancient prophecies of a redemption-to-come to Gabriel’s visit to Mary and her subsequent Magnificat to Jesus’s parable of the ten bridesmaids and other such warnings of / yearnings for his second coming, with glimmers and bursts of hope scattered throughout.
Sometimes the line between a “Christmas” song and an “Advent” song is blurry, but generally I characterize an Advent song as one that’s marked by a sense of longing or expectation. As I said before, this longing can be expressed joyously or with tears and groaning, and both these shades are present in the playlist.
The predominant musical style represented is indie-folk (Sufjan Stevens, Josh Garrels, The Welcome Wagon, The Oh Hellos [previously], The Brilliance, Ordinary Time, etc.), but there’s also some choral, gospel, jazz, Taizé chant, sixties rock, show tunes, a Harry Potter-esque celesta interlude, and an Irish reel! Oh, and a smattering of virtuosic oud solos by Joseph Tawadros, with evocative titles like “Dream with Me” and “Where It All Began.” I hope the list is full of surprises for you.
I must note that there are plenty more traditional Advent hymns that exist but that I’ve excluded either because I could not find suitable recordings on Spotify, or because the tunes are dull or awkward. (And I’m sure there are also many songs that I’m simply not aware of.) I put a lot of stock in musical composition and vocal quality.
As you move down the first third of the list, let me draw your attention to some of the biblical texts the songs are drawn from—various foretastes of the coming kingdom that God vouchsafed to certain Hebrew poets and seers. May we capture their vision this Advent:
“Come, Lord” is the cry of Advent, and you will find it manifest in many of the songs here, from the bright, guitar-picked “Come Into My Heart” by Reilly & Maloney or Isaac Wardell’s “Messiah” waltz to St. Ambrose’s fourth-century “Veni, Redemptor gentium”—translated variously into English as “Savior of the Nations, Come” and “Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth,” each set to a different tune—to the African American spiritual “Kumbaya” (Gullah for “Come by Here”) [previously].
I’ve included only a few non-English songs, and where you encounter them, I encourage you to look up lyric translations, so as not to miss their full impact. The Swedish “Jul, Jul, Strålande Jul” (Christmas, Christmas, Glorious Christmas) by Edvard Evers and Gustaf Nordqvist, for example, prays, “Come, come, blessed Christmas: lower your white wings, / over the battlefield’s blood and cry . . .”
The “Come, Lord” song that makes me the most emotional, that taps deeply into my longing for the world, and my own heart, to be made new, is “Immanuel” by Jason Morant. “God with us, where are you now? . . . Be here somehow . . . in this desert of prosperity.” I’ve prayed through this song for years but have only just now discovered the music video Morant made for it, which attaches to it a story of desperation:
Perhaps my favorite Advent song is “The Trumpet Child,”
written by husband-wife duo Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist of Over the Rhine
. The two are superb songwriters, here giving us some stunning imagery and a really unique take on Advent:
The trumpet child will blow his horn
Will blast the sky till it’s reborn
With Gabriel’s power and Satchmo’s grace
He will surprise the human race
The trumpet he will use to blow
Is being fashioned out of fire
The mouthpiece is a glowing coal
The bell a burst of wild desire
The trumpet child will riff on love
Thelonious notes from up above
He’ll improvise a kingdom come
Accompanied by a different drum
The trumpet child will banquet here
Until the lost are truly found
A thousand days, a thousand years
Nobody knows for sure how long
The rich forget about their gold
The meek and mild are strangely bold
A lion lies beside a lamb
And licks a murderer’s outstretched hand
The trumpet child will lift a glass
His bride now leaning in at last
His final aim to fill with joy
The earth that man all but destroyed
The song intertwines Christ’s first and second advents, combining incarnation with apocalypse. The trumpet is a heralding instrument, announcing the arrival of a ruler or dignitary—but the aural image here is not of a ceremonial fanfare, formal and rigid, but of a fiery, improvisatory jazz solo, blaring soulfully into the night, and played by the comer himself. At his arrival, Christ will “blast the sky till it’s reborn,” rupturing the old world order. (I think of Isaiah 64:1–2: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood . . .”) A fearsome thought, that sudden splitting, that roar . . . and yet at the same time, the arrival is smooth and graceful. Strength and tenderness, hand in hand.
Christ’s mouthpiece, the part of the trumpet you blow on to make sound, is a burning coal, the song says; this picks up on imagery from Isaiah 6:6–7 and evokes notions of the sacred, sacrifice, purgation. The bell, or flare—the part of the trumpet where sound comes out—is “a burst of wild desire.” Christ’s song is full of passionate intensity. This smoky, smoldering, bursting quality is reflected in the playing of piano, double bass, and percussion throughout, and by the trumpet and sax that come in after the final verse. (Note: The live performance above has no trumpet or saxophone.) Appropriately for Advent, the song does not end on the tonic, the home chord, but rather remains unresolved, playing out the tension that we presently live in, between the “already” and the “not yet” of Christ’s kingdom—that is, the space between his first and second comings.
Major props to Rob and Amy Seiffert of Madhouse for the album’s brilliant cover illustration, by the way, which converts the flaring horn of a vintage record player into an open white lily. The result is a hybrid image of “power” and “grace,” which is how Christ comes to us. His gospel packs a punch, blaring into our lives, but it’s also full of delicate beauty. The choice of a lily to allude to the “trumpet child’s” advent has precedent in countless traditional paintings of the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel holds such a flower out to Mary just before Jesus is conceived in her womb.
“The Trumpet Child” references legendary jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong (nicknamed “Satchmo”) and jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, as well as the “peaceable kingdom” prophecy of Isaiah 11, where predation is no more, and the end-time Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6–9). Jesus’s final aim, Bergquist sings, is to fill the earth with joy. Joy to the world.
So lastly, that joy: Christy Nockels. Her hand-clapping, foot-stomping “Dance at Migdal Eder,” played on the Irish fiddle, never ceases to get me excited for Christmas! Although it uses the present progressive tense, not the future, I have it on my Advent list because it creates for me a sense of Love’s call revving up, coming closer, beckoning me to dance. And it amplifies my yearning for “home.” It’s from Nockels’s 2016 album The Thrill of Hope, and indeed, it captures that thrill.
Can you hear it calling
Mercy is falling down
Love is calling
Love is calling you home
I had to look up the name in the title: Migdal Eder (literally “tower of the flock”) is an ancient geographic locale on the outskirts of Bethlehem, where shepherds tended their sheep. So Nockels likely had in mind the rejoicing of the shepherds (Luke 2:8–20) when she wrote this song.
So there you go. I offer this lovingly crafted Advent playlist, with many thanks to all the contributing artists, as an invitation to slow down and reconnect with the amazing, ongoing salvation narrative that God’s authoring. Christ has come, Christ will come again. And in the Spirit, he is with us now, Emmanuel. Let’s reorient our desires and expectations toward him.
If 170-plus songs is too overwhelming a list for you to work through, use this abridged Advent playlist instead, which contains just an hour’s worth of highlights:
As you prepare room for Christ Jesus this season, may you come to experience more deeply and intimately all the hope, peace, joy, and love that are yours in him.
(Update, 1/6/20: Thank you for all the positive feedback! I’ve just added another batch of songs to the list, some of them at the end, others integrated higher up to maintain the narrative. New additions include “Will There Really Be a Morning” by Julie Lee, “Let There Be” by Gungor, “Advent Moon” by Cecilia McDowall, some selections from Drew Miller’s, Nathan Partain’s, and Lo Sy Lo’s new Advent albums, some Katy Wehr and Nina Simone, and the title track of the Duke of Norfolk album Attendre et Espérer, whose text comes from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas:
Live, then, and be happy, beloved children of my heart, and never forget, that until the day when God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words: “Wait and hope.”)
Playlist cover art: Jan Mankes (Dutch, 1889–1920), View from a Studio in Eerbeek (detail), 1917