The Advent and Christmas seasons offer opportunities for parishes to vary their musical choices at Mass, to learn new songs, and to revisit cherished favorite hymns. What follows is a description of some liturgical options and practices associated with these seasons which have grown in popularity in recent years and about which parishes may have interest or questions:

  • An observance which may be new to many communities is the singing of “The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ” from the Roman Martyrology. Located in Appendix I of the Roman Missal, this ancient and solemn proclamation of Christ’s birth may be chanted or recited, either during the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours or before beginning the Christmas “Mass during the Night.” While this proclamation should not replace any part of the Christmas Mass, it can serve as a jubilant prelude to a parish’s Midnight Mass just prior to the entrance procession, when it may be sung by a cantor, deacon or priest. A recording of this chant is available at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians’ [NPM] website.
  • Also found in Appendix I of the Roman Missal is the “Announcement of Easter and the Moveable Feasts.” This chant may be proclaimed after the Gospel at the “Mass during the Day” for the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord (January 5, 2020). The Announcement serves as a sung listing and reminder of all of the most important feasts and seasons in the coming months, highlighting the centrality of the resurrection of the Lord in the liturgical year. The dates for these celebrations are conveniently located in the “Table of Principal Celebrations of the Liturgical Year,” which is found in the introductory material of the Roman Missal. A recording of this chant is also available at the NPM website. 
  • The Liturgy Office occasionally receives questions concerning the use of the popular hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” throughout the Advent season. The text of this hymn has its origins in the famous “O Antiphons,” which are found in Evening Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours and the Alleluia verse at Mass during the last half of Advent, from December 17-24. The “O Antiphons” present several Old Testament names given to the Messiah, including: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Dawn of the East), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel (O “God is with us”). Since these titles form part of the Church’s liturgical texts for the latter half of the Advent season, it is sometimes asked whether the use of the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” should be reserved to those same days immediately preceding Christmas. 

In response, while this hymn’s use is certainly very appropriate during this period, it should be noted that the Liturgy of the Hours lists this song as an option during the first half of the Advent season as well. This practice follows the liturgical theology of the Advent season described in the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar: “Advent has a twofold character, for it is a time of preparation for the solemnities of Christmas, in which the first coming of the Son of God to humanity is remembered, and likewise a time when, by remembrance of this, minds and hearts are led to look forward to Christ’s second coming at the end of time.” Thus, the General Norms presents the Advent season as having two complementary foci: the liturgical texts of the first weeks of Advent focus more on the Second Coming of Christ, while those in the latter half are centered primarily on the First Coming of the Messiah. Given that the titles ascribed to Christ in “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” are applicable to both His Glorious Second Coming and His First Coming in Bethlehem, it is appropriate to sing this hymn throughout the entirety of the Advent season.

  • Often, parish communities wish  to sing beloved Christmas hymns during the Advent season as an expression of the joy felt during this favorite time of year, and perhaps also as a result of the influence of the commercial observance of Christmas, which usually begins soon after Halloween! It is important to recognize, however, that the liturgical season of Advent has a unique character that is different from the celebratory spirit of Christmas. As noted above, Advent is a time of joyful anticipation, and the music that is used during these weeks should reflect the sense of expectant waiting and spiritual preparation observed during the season. 

With this in mind, what hymns are appropriate for Advent? Although some songs like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” may be used during the entirety of the season (as described above), other popular Advent hymns often focus more exclusively on awaiting either the First or Second Coming of Christ; these can be selected depending on the thematic emphasis of the readings and other liturgical texts (e.g., proper antiphons and prayers) of the day. Below is a sample listing of hymns which are more appropriate for the beginning and end of Advent, respectively: 

From the beginning of Advent through December 16Third Sunday of Advent and from December 17 to December 24
Comfort, Comfort, Ye My People

Creator of the Stars of Night 

Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending

O Come, Divine Messiah

On Jordan’s Bank

People, Look East

When the King Shall Come Again

The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came

Behold a Virgin Bearing Him

Come, O Long Expected Jesus 

Gaudete! Gaudete!

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates!

Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming 

  • Lastly, in recent years, a Christmas song entitled “Mary, Did You Know?” has become popular in both secular and religious contexts, and it has even sometimes been adopted into liturgical settings. It should be noted that several rhetorical questions posed in the song’s lyrics present serious theological difficulties for Catholics. For example, the lyrics ask Our Lady, “Did you know that your Baby Boy has come to make you new? This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you?” This question appears to be at least an implicit denial of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which affirms that Mary was preserved from all stain of Original Sin from the moment of her conception. While there is assuredly an atemporal aspect to God’s activity, at face value, the phrase “This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you” conveys a sense that Mary was still awaiting redemption at the time of the birth of Christ, rather than having been already preserved from Original Sin from the first instant of her existence by a “prevenient grace” (see: Prayer over the Offerings for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception). Due to these problematic lyrics, this song should not be introduced into a liturgical setting.