Josh Garrels reclaims the sacred mystery of Christmas and recaptures the spirit of Advent
The Light Came Down, a new collection of Christmas songs and hymns from indie songwriter Josh Garrels, is not your typical Christmas album. Right from the title track (heard in the album teaser above), which sweeps us up into an atmospheric and stirring blend of vocalizations, strings, and percussion, the album reclaims the sacred mystery of Christmas – not just by slowing us down and focusing our gaze on the heart of the season, but by recapturing the sense of great expectation on either side.
The result is as much an Advent album as it is a Christmas album. Like midnight in midwinter, the mood is tranquil and attentive, flooded with what C.S. Lewis described as “the inconsolable longing in the heart for we know not what.” This universally human sehnsucht takes shape in the theology of the lyrics, from a hauntingly beautiful cover of that classic Advent hymn, “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” to “Hosanna,” a take on the Sanctus prayer that sings praise to God, but stops short of announcing “he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Even toward the end of the album, there is a weary, moonlit instrumental titled “Journey to Bethlehem” – and we’re still on the way to that mysterious manger.
What we find there is a paradox: the “God of power and might” who fashioned the whole universe appearing “a helpless child,” an outcast born in a dark corner of Palestine where animals feed. There may be a whole lot about Christmas celebrations that has become hollow or trite – but what we’re celebrating, as Chesterton wrote, “a million repetitions cannot turn into a platitude,” even as it’s reiterated millions of times over. To see the paradox is to be in awe; we just need to be still enough for long enough to really see it again.
This is what Garrels offers us. His three covers of more traditional Christmas songs – “What Child Is This,” “O Holy Night,” and “Silent Night” – are all focused squarely on the reality of Christ in the manger. And like so much of what Josh Garrels writes and sings, these are earnest, soulful, and open-hearted renderings that don’t overcomplicate themselves musically. The words and their meaning and beauty are allowed to shine, illuminating the reality of the incarnation and its implications for oppressed peoples and lost souls.
Of course, in the marriage of these two mysteries there is mirth. A jazzy original song (“Gloria”), a cover of a folk traditional (“The Virgin Mary Had One Son”), and a medieval-sounding song pair (“The Boar’s Head” and the instrumental “Merriment”), all give the album a celebratory dose of cheer without which no Christmas album would be complete.
But as The Light Came Down comes full circle, the spirit of Advent is upon us once more. Only now, there is a new expectation, one flowing not toward but from Christmas: the expectation that its promise of peace and justice will be fulfilled at the end of time. “O Day of Peace,” a resplendent Methodist hymn, looks forward to a world that has finally come to know and live in Christ:
O day of peace that dimly shines
Through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
Guide us to justice, truth, and love,
Delivered from our selfish schemes.
May the swords of hate fall from our hands,
Our hearts from envy find release,
Till by God’s grace our warring world
Shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.
Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb,
Nor shall the fierce devour the small;
As beasts and cattle calmly graze,
A little child shall lead them all.
Then enemies shall learn to love,
All creatures find their true accord;
The hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
For all the earth shall know the Lord.
And in the closing track, “Come to Him,” Josh Garrels offers a single stanza to the same melody:
Come to Him with all your heart
Come and lay your burdens down
For peace He came to give
And Joy shall be the crown
And Joy shall be the crown
Advent here becomes more than just awaiting Christmas, and Christmas more than just an isolated event in history. The peace and joy of Christmas echoes across the entire year, our entire lives, and the entirety of time, “from generation to generation,” and all of life is an Advent – a waiting and watching for earth to receive her King once more.