Hymns of Advent

The ubiquitous "sounds of Christmas," in shops, elevators, and on radio and TV, are among the most powerful influences on us to think about Christmas, rather than Advent, from the middle of November on. As a parody once put it, "Hark, the herald angels cry,/ telling us, 'Go out and buy.'" Once a catchy tune (even, sometimes, a bad tune!) begins ringing in our ears and repeating again and again in our head, it is difficult to get it out. And the subconscious effect on our mood and our attitudes is substantial. Thus, one of the ways we can work on rediscovering Advent is to learn some of the rich hymnody that has been composed for the season.  It is not likely to replace the music that is piped into public places, but iPods and other portable devices now make it possible to have our own musical backgrounds, no matter what is going on around us. We also have the ability to startle those around us by programming cell phone ring tones with short bursts of seasonal tunes. The truth is that modern technology has the potential to become the best defense (and revenge!) against the intrusions of modern culture. A selection of Advent CDs is available at our bookshop.

As we have noted elsewhere, hymns can be profoundly theological. Indeed, for many people they are a primary source of theological understanding, and this is as it should be in a Church that takes seriously the rule lex orandi lex credendi ("we believe what we pray"). Most of the hymns we highlight here are found in The Hymnal 1982 ("TH 82" below) of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., but we also draw on other sources. If a hymn title is underlined, clicking on it will take you to a page of one of the online hymnals that provide further information and, often, a midi recording of the tune. There are a lot of good Advent hymns and we have not attempted to include them all here, but you will find some of the best (in our opinion) and a few that may be new to you.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) The Last Judgment (detail)

Lo! he comes with clouds descending (TH 82 #58 ) This is the classic hymn of the Second Coming, a moving word picture of the glory and the dread of the return of Christ to judge the living and the dead. The hymn has gone through several redactions. The original was written by John Cennick in 1752. Several years later, Charles Wesley produced a substantial reworking of Cennick's hymn.  TH 82 provides two musical settings, John Francis Wade's simpler tune St. Thomas and the powerful Helmsley. Like the text, the latter tune has also been revised. The original tune by Thomas Olivers was altered by Martin Madan who published it in 1769.

Come, thou long expected Jesus (TH 82 #66) is another Charles Wesley hymn, a gentle prayer to the infant King to enter our hearts and raise us to heaven. Although it was originally written as two stanzas of eight lines each, it has been set to the tune Stuttgart in recent American hymnals (1940 and 1982) as four stanzas of four lines each. 

Creator of the stars of night (TH 82 #60) The Latin original of this hymn first appears in manuscripts of the ninth and tenth centuries. Both a plea for divine compassion and a hymn of praise to God the Creator, Redeemer, and Judge of fallen humanity, it is the office hymn in the monastic office of Vespers. The English translation of John Mason Neale was first published in 1851 and has been revised and updated several times. The plainsong melody, Conditor alme siderum, is the traditional tune associated with this hymn.

Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding (TH 82 #59) Edward Caswall translated this tenth century Latin hymn and published it in 1849. Its tells of Christ the Sun who dispels darkness and "shines upon the morning skies" and was appointed to be sung daily in Advent at the daybreak office of Lauds in the Sarum rite. The tune Merton by William Henry Monk has been closely associated with this hymn ever since text and tune were published together in the Parish Choir in 1850.

People, look East is a modern Advent carol written by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) and set to a traditional carol tune, Besançon. It was first published in The Oxford Book of Carols in 1928. The carol bids people and angels and all creation to watch and prepare for the coming of Love incarnate.

Sleepers, wake (TH 82 #61, 62) It is ironic that the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, to which this hymn refers, is not read in Advent. At least, this is the case in the Episcopal Church of the U.S. However, the parable does occur as the Gospel three Sundays before Advent in Year A of the Eucharistic Lectionary. That is to say, it is read at the very beginning of St. Martin's Lent every three years. Philipp Nicolai's stirring tune, Wachet auf ("wake up"), contributes to the urgency of this call to prepare for the arrival of the Bridegroom which will be at a time we do not expect.

Rejoice, rejoice, believers! (TH 82 #68) Another hymn based on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.

Comfort, comfort ye my people (TH 82 #67) was written in German by Johannes G. Olearius (1611-1684) for the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. The English translation by Catherine Winkworth was published in 1863. The text paraphrases Isaiah 40 and identifies the voice in the wilderness as John the Baptist.

There's a voice in the wilderness crying (TH 82 #75) This is a newer hymn (1931) based on the same text from Isaiah. The text and a different tune than the 1982 Hymnal tune are found on this link.

A.A. Ivanov, (1806-1858), The Appearance of Christ to the PeopleOn Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry (TH 82 #76) Although he does not have a feast day in Advent, John the Baptist is clearly one of the chief saints of Advent. He bridges the gap between the Old and New Testaments, proclaiming, as in the previous hymn, the traditional prophetic promise of the coming Messiah, and then pointing specifically to Jesus, the long-awaited fulfilment of that promise. This Latin hymn of the 18th century repeats the Baptist's warning that repentance is a necessary precondition to participation in the coming salvation.

Saints of Advent, Christmas joy Here is an unusual new hymn that celebrates several of the saints whose feasts fall in Advent. Many more hymns for the feast of St. Nicholas are found on this page, provided by the St. Nicholas Center.

The King shall come when morning dawns (TH 82 #73) The original Greek source of this hymn is unknown. The Hymnal 1982 version unfortunately omits a verse which includes a reference to the resurrection of our Lord and provides the essential link between his coming "of old [as] a little child" and his appearance again as King of kings.

Come thou, Redeemer of the earth John Mason Neale's translation of a hymn by St. Ambrose is not found in many hymnals. Nevertheless, it is a familiar Advent hymn to those who know the Advent Service of Lessons and Carols from King's College, Cambridge.

Savior of the nations, come! (TH 82 #54) This hymn of St. Ambrose comes to us by way of a paraphrase by Martin Luther and translations by William M. Reynolds and James Waring McCrady. It is set to the majestic German tune, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, which J.S. Bach used in a number of his compositions.

O come, O come, Emmanuel (TH 82 #56) This ninth century hymn is based on the Great O antiphons which are sung with the Magnificat each day beginning on December 16th. A fuller explanation of the origins of the hymn and a number of links can be found by clicking on this link.

A Hymn for St. Nicholas' Day (pdf file) Many thanks to Canon Joseph A. Kucharski, Precentor of the Cathedral of All Saints, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for this saint's day hymn.

Hills of the North, rejoice Charles E. Oakley (1832-1865) wrote this hymn that gives the season of Advent a missionary perspective.  It is sung to the tune Little Cornard, written by Martin Shaw.

A Service of Lessons and Carols for Advent

The service of lessons and carols at the beginning of Advent is a popular tradition. While there is a good deal of choral music that is appropriate to this service, it is not necessary for it to be limited to  churches with choirs. We offer here a format that requires only congregational singing. If a choir is available, choral selections may be sung in addition to or in place of any of the hymns.

The service may begin with the nave in darkness and lights only on the high altar. At the beginning of the service, the [choir and] clergy are at the back of the church. The use of light and movement in the service is symbolic, representing the movement of fallen humanity from the darkness of sin and death toward redemption and life in the light of God’s eternal Kingdom. At the heart of the service are readings from Scripture that describe how God planned from ancient times to send a Messiah to bring his people out of exile and misery. Readings from the New Testament continue the story of God’s plan as it unfolds in the birth of Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Son of God, and comes to a climax and final act in his return at the end of time to complete the promised redemption.  Following each reading, there are carols and hymns that have been chosen to aid reflection on the meaning of these things as the Advent season of expectation and hope begins.

Matin Responsory

Officiant: I look from afar:
And lo, I see the power of God coming, and a cloud covering the whole earth.
Go ye out to meet him and say:
Tell us, art thou he that should come to reign over thy people Israel?
High and low, rich and poor, One with another,
Go ye out to meet him and say:
Hear, O thou shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep.
Tell us, art thou he that should come?
Stir up thy strength, O Lord, and come
To reign over thy people Israel.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.
I look from afar: and lo, I see the power of God coming, and a cloud covering the whole earth.
 Officiant: Go ye out to meet him and say:
Tell us, art thou he that should come to reign over thy people Israel?

Processional Hymn:  Creator of the stars of night 
As the [choir and] clergy move forward, the clergy share the flame of their candles with members of the congregation.

Bidding Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer
The text for a bidding prayer for an Advent service can be found in
The Book of Occasional Services. If the service has begun in darkness, the lights are turned on following the Lord's Prayer and the people extinguish their candles.

Hymn:  O come, O come, Emmanuel

The First Lesson:  Baruch 4:36-5:9 - The prophet Baruch calls the people to look east because their salvation is at hand.
Hymn:  People, look East

The Second Lesson:  Isaiah 6:1-11 – God commissions Isaiah to be the prophet of the Advent.
Hymn: Comfort, comfort ye my people

The Third Lesson:  Isaiah 7:10-14; 8:9-10 – The prophet foretells the birth of Emmanuel, God with us.
Carol:  Virgin-born, we bow before thee

The Fourth Lesson:  Isaiah 35:1-10 – The desert shall bloom and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.
Hymn:  Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding

The Fifth Lesson:  Luke 1:26-38 – The angel Gabriel salutes the Blessed Virgin Mary
Carol: The angel Gabriel from heaven came

The Sixth Lesson:  Matthew 3:1-12 – John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for sins.
Hymn:  On Jordan’s bank the Baptist's cry 

The Seventh Lesson:  Revelation 1:1-8; 22:20-21 - Saint John the Divine beholds a vision of the end.

Officiant:  We wait for thy loving-kindness, O Lord.
People:  In the midst of thy temple.
Officiant:  The whole creation pleads:
People: Come, Lord Jesus!
Officiant:  The Spirit and the Church cry out:
People:  Come, Lord Jesus!
Officiant:  All those who await his appearance cry out:
People:  Come, Lord Jesus!

The Collect for the First Sunday in Advent

The Blessing

Hymn:  Lo! He comes with clouds descending

Full Homely Divinity Home

Rediscovering Advent

Saints of Advent

A Devotion for the Last Days of Advent

Keeping the Twelve Days of Christmas