Growing up, the rule in my family was simple: no Christmas music before Thanksgiving. As a church pastor, I held onto that same value of honoring each season in its turn: no “Jesus is born” hymns during worship in Advent.
Truth be told, however, in my personal music spaces I don’t keep the liturgical seasons quite so separate. John Denver and the Muppets are already caroling from my car’s CD player. Mariah has me praising, “Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child” on the commute to work. And with Amy Grant, I’m longing for Tennessee as if it were my home state.
For me, Christmas carols in Advent are not an oxymoron. The out-of-season music reflects my impatient longing for peace and joy: not just the eagerness for holiday rest and family time, but truly the restlessness that a new day must be near, the birth of Peace needs to come soon. The world is groaning like a woman in labor, but Justice remains overdue! Singing a few early Christmas carols not only energizes my joy in Christ’s coming; it also reminds me that God, too, longs for the world’s restoration.
So if you’re still scurrying to plan Advent worship services or your December sermon series (or if you’re looking for an excuse to listen to Christmas music a little early), consider incorporating carols into Advent — that’s right, out of season! Here are a few specific suggestions:
Advent 1, “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
Reflecting on the carol with the lectionary’s Isaiah 2:1-5, imagine the good news echoing down the mountain of the LORD, across valleys and through towns, from shepherd boy to king: lessons of wisdom to teach justice and songs of peace to unlearn the ways of war.
Advent 2, “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night”
The haunting hymn asks for a guide to help us see beauty even in the most frightening, most mysterious hours of night: a star shining gloriously, a child born amidst doubt. Partnered with the strident Matthew 3:1-12, the carol gives voice to hope when otherwise we might see and hear only our own fears.
Advent 3, “I Pray on Christmas”
Mary is singing (Luke 1:46b-55), the desert is singing (Isaiah 35:1-10), you had better do some joyful singing on the Third Sunday in Advent! If our own faith communities aren’t accustomed to clapping and toe-tapping, sometimes a guest soloist can help! Bring Harry Connick, Jr.’s “I Pray on Christmas” into worship as the Prayers of the People or the Postlude for an upbeat call to renewal.
Advent 4, “Carol of the Bells”
Listen to the carol with its lyrics chiming incessantly. The words are tolling bells, pealing like prayers without ceasing: “O LORD, how long will you refuse to hear your people’s prayers? Give us life as we call on your name!” (Psalm 80) As Christ’s coming nears, the echoes of our prayers swell: “Bring good cheer to young and old, to meek and bold! Ding, dong, ding, dong!”