Forget Christmas carols. Advent is the perfect time to rediscover traditional chant

Members of The Catholic University of America Chamber Choir sing during a rehearsal at the Washington campus' St. Vincent Chapel (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

Chant offers the ideal antidote to the worst excesses of early Christmas celebration

People love Christmas carols. But, whether we hear carols in the children’s nativity play, played in the shops, on the radio or in the parish carol service, there is no denying that by Midnight Mass we can be ‘carolled out’, and just when the glorias in excelsis should be beginning, we are ready to move on with the rest of the world, for whom Christmas begins in November and ends on Boxing Day.

As Catholics, we often bemoan the commercialisation of Christmas, the premature appearance of trees in Tesco and the advent calendars stuffed with chocolate which rather take the edge off the first box of Quality Street on Christmas morning. But all our early carol singing can have the same effect. The poor angels have their thunder stolen on Christmas night if we have been announcing the birth of Jesus since the first of December.

Rather than open our musical presents early, we could take the opportunity during this Advent to rediscover the rich treasures of Advent music. In particular, the Church’s treasury of chant reserves some of the most hauntingly beautiful music of the year for this season. Chant, with its simplicity, austerity and restrained grace, offers the ideal antidote not only to the worst excesses of early Christmas celebration, but can help whet our appetites for the great carols we know and love so much.

First to mention is the Marian antiphon ‘Alma redemptoris mater’, which replaces the ‘Salve regina’ in this season as the usual antiphon for Night Prayer. The text of this antiphon address Mary as ‘star of the deep and portal of the sky’, and implores: ‘Oh, by that joy which Gabriel brought to thee, Virgin first and last, let us thy mercy see.’ In its simple version the ‘Alma’ is very easy to learn to sing, and in its solemn version it is one of the most glorious chants the Church possesses. It would make a lovely anthem for one of the Sunday masses in Advent.

The ‘Advent prose’, also known by its refrain ‘Rorate caeli’, is an evocative hymn-like chant with texts from Isaiah. Its simple refrain is most often translated as ‘Drop down ye heavens from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness’. This refrain answers three verses in which the people of Israel – and thus ourselves – cry out to God to come and save them from their sins. The final verse is God’s tender and consoling response: ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, my salvation shall not tarry: I have blotted out as a thick cloud thy transgressions. Fear not, for I will save thee: for I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Redeemer.’  The ‘Rorate caeli’ can be found in most hymn books, and is not difficult to learn. It is a very moving experience to sing.

Finally, as Christmas approaches, the great ‘O antiphons’ make themselves felt. These Magnificat antiphons are sung between the 17th and 24th December, each addressing the coming Saviour by a different prophetic title: ‘Key of David’, ‘Root of Jesse’, ‘Wisdom’, etc. Each sung to the same melody, the cumulative force of these chants over the final days of Advent is to raise anticipation to a fever pitch. A nice tradition is to sing these antiphons as a family while putting up a decoration for each antiphon in the last days leading up to Christmas.

These chants and many others are offered to us by the Church as a spiritual treasure to help us prepare for the great Feast of the Nativity. Why not explore some of them this year, save our carols until the Christmas season – and keep singing them until the end of the season in January!