SONGS FOR THE WAITING: Devotions Inspired by the Hymns of Advent. By Magrey R. DeVega. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Xiv + 102 pages.
American Christians are an impatient lot, at least that is true around the time of Advent. Although the liturgical season of Advent is designed to help us prepare to welcome the incarnate one into our midst, we seem intent on skipping from the Thanksgiving Table to Christmas morning, when we intend to open the presents that were purchased on Thanksgiving evening, if not before. Indeed, signs of Christmas now can be seen well before Halloween. When it comes to the church, a lot of people struggle with Advent. Since the radio stations begin playing Christmas music on Thanksgiving Day, why should we wait four weeks to sing Christmas songs in church? While I love Christmas carols and hymns, I also find the often neglected Advent hymns to be spiritually inspiring. They tend to be quieter and slower than most Christmas carols, but there are important messages embedded in hymns like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” So what might need is a devotional book that can help us explore these texts.
Magrey R. DeVega has taken up the task of introducing us to a series of Advent hymns, offering twenty-eight devotional reflections that start on the First Sunday of Advent with the first verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and concludes with the first stanza of “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve. Therefore, there is a reflection set aside for every day of Advent. Some of the hymns will be better known than others, but attending to them could prove helpful as people wait for the revealing of the incarnate one.
The author of this collection of devotional reflections on Advent hymns is the Senior Pastor at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, Florida. He wrote an earlier book of devotions for Advent that focus on the Gospels. Therefore, he does some experience with this season and its call to wait and prepare. He confesses that he’s not a “liturgical purist.” He understands “that people want to sing ‘Away in the Manger’ and ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ before Christmas Eve. Such songs evoke cherished memories of holidays gone by; . . .. So I would never begrudge a congregation sprinkling in carols during Advent worship” (p. xiii). Doing so, however, should not come “at the expense of singing the Advent hymns,” lest we miss “out on the rich message that only they can provide.” With this I am in complete agreement. The temptation here is to fast-forward, and DeVega wants us to say no to the temptation.
As noted earlier, the book has twenty-eight brief chapters. In the course of the journey from the first Sunday of Advent to Christmas Eve, readers encounter ten Advent hymns, and one carol (Silent Night on Christmas Eve). He begins with four days of reflections on verses from “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” From there we move to one chapter that deals with a Taize song “Prepare the Way of the Lord.” There are three chapters on the song “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light,” a hymn that seems unfamiliar. From there we move to three verses of “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” three verses of “People, Look East” (increasingly a favorite of mine), three verses of Come, Thou Almighty King,” two verses of “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” two verses of “Toda la Tierra” (I know this as “All Earth is Waiting” and it too is a favorite). From there we move to three verses of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” I have a fondness for this hymn, though many find it too somber for the season. Finally, in the three days prior to Christmas Eve when the hymn will be “Silent Night,” we have three verses of “To A Maid Engaged to Joseph,” another song that is unfamiliar to me.
What we have here is a collection of hymns and songs that may or may not be familiar, but that lend themselves to the task of moving slowly toward Christmas. Each chapter invites the reader to take up a reading from Scripture, which is paired with a verse from an Advent hymn that offers a similar vision. This is followed by a reflection by DeVega, which takes up both hymn and Scripture text. This is followed by an invitation for one’s own reflection, which can also serve as discussion question. This is followed by a prayer, which DeVega has written.
DeVega points out that this is an important season, that calls for "patience and attentive preparation." That is because "as pregnancy precedes birth, so does Advent intentionally focus us on the ways to get ready for the arrival of Christ in and among us" (p. xii). So, even as we try to fast-forward to Christmas, we might want to slow down and reflect on the messages embedded in these hymns.
By way of confession, since I wanted to get word out about the book prior to Advent, I didn't take twenty-eight days to read them. However, they’re designed to be read one day at a time. So, if you're looking for a resource to help you journey through Advent, I think this will be a good companion!