There is nothing like a hymn to glorify God and sanctify souls
What are the top twenty Advent and Christmas hymns of the millennia—not counting the Holly-Jolly-Better-Watch-Out- Chestnuts-Roasting secular fare? From my 40 years as a cantor, soloist and choir member, I’ve compiled a playlist of the most sublime Christian hymns for Advent and Christmas, along with links to some memorable performances. But please don’t skip this little intro and head straight to the list and links. It might just change your ideas about singing at Mass.
Here’s a question to get us started: What document promulgated by Pope Paul VI has been ignored almost as much as Humanae Vitae?
Answer: The Second Vatican Council’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” (Sacrosanctum Concilium or “SC”), promulgated December 4, 1963. Its Chapter Six on “Sacred Music” (nos. 112-121) sets the standards for liturgical music that, regrettably, have been abused more than practiced in the intervening years.
And while these standards exist as a sure guide, selecting the best of the best is still pretty subjective, and I’m certain I’ll leave out some of your personal favorites. Some of my “best performances” may be new to you, too. So go ahead and take your best shot in the comments box.
Fair warning: Hymns, especially hymns, should be sung well (which doesn’t mean for professionals only) and they should keep the focus on God. For those reasons, I will not link to singers who scoop up to notes—yeah, I’m talking to YOU, Andrea Boccelli—or to soloists who embellish a perfectly beautiful melodic line with far more notes than written, making the music about THEM rather than about the text that’s glorifying God. There’s a place for jazz stylings, but it isn’t a Roman Catholic church. So, indulge me for a minute while I lay out the criteria for my choices (and give you more fodder for the comment box).
Sacrosanctum Concilium tells us that “the purpose of sacred music … is the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful,” and that sacred music “adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, [and] confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites” (no. 112).
While “the treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care … whenever the sacred action is to be celebrated with song, the whole body of the faithful [should] be able to contribute that active participation which is rightly theirs” (no. 114; emphasis mine). In other words, hymns during Mass should not be grand choral masterpieces for the choir alone to perform as if at a concert, but simple enough for folks in the pews to actively participate in praising God through song.
This point is reiterated in no. 118 of SC: “Religious singing by the people is to be intelligently fostered so that … during liturgical services, the voices of the faithful may ring out. …”
It may seem a contradiction that “the Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (no. 116; emphasis mine).
Many people think of Gregorian chant as being too difficult or outdated for assembly singing, but it’s not difficult to learn and chant is more “undated,” than outdated. It’s both elemental and timeless. The pulse of chant—the rising and falling, the speeding up and slowing down, always driving gently forward to eternal life—is as natural as breathing, as a heartbeat or the ebb and flow of waves on a shore line. Because the progression of notes in Gregorian chant make musical sense, and as they become familiar, chant allows one to focus on the all-important text (which is also always scriptural).