“Please open your Gather hymnals to number seven-four-three, and join us in singing “Sing a New Church.” My family sighs.
“Gatherrrrred in the name of Jesus, richer still in uniteeeeeeeeee,” our church’s choir meticulously sings off-pitch. It’s the sort of modern insubstantial hymn which sounds nice, but doesn’t really say anything nor does it evoke any sort of emotional response. While the lyrics are about as filler as a half the songs on First Impressions of Earth, the tune is nice. I look at the bottom of the hymn --“Nettleton. John Wyeth.” A mental note is made and promptly forgotten
A couple years down the road, I’m preparing for my first round of law school finals. My advertising classwork in undergrad did not prepare me for memorizing proximate cause factors or comments from the Uniform Commercial Code. However, I need some light music to study effectively. It’s tough to strike the right balance: too airy and I space out, too rocky and I get distracted. I listen to Ambient 1 a lot. Given the impending Christmas season, I decided to put some Sufjan Christmas songs on in the background, believing it would strike the right tone.
Full disclaimer: I may be a bad Sufjan fan. I’ve only listened to A Sun Came and Enjoy Your Rabbit once. I’ve never listened to The BQE. I hadn’t listened to all 100 Christmas songs. But since Asthmatic Kitty put all Sufjan’s Christmas songs on one Spotify playlist, it seemed to be as good of a time as any to start. Five or six songs in, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing came on and immediately, it sounded familiar. Upon hearing the opening banjo strums, immediately, my brain filled in the opening lines of “Sing a New Church.”
Nettleton. John Wyeth.
I was transfixed. Rather than some tedious hymn sung by a church choir who gosh-darn-it-is-just-doing-their-best, I was getting chills with every verse, every line. After 24 hours, it was one of my all-time-favorite Sufjan Stevens songs–A Very Big Deal for one of my five favorite artists, one I’d seen live three times.
It’s a beautiful hymn, no doubt. But this is a Christmas project, and on first, or second, or third glance, this song doesn’t seem to be about Christmas. And that’s right. It’s not really a Christmas song. It’s an Advent song.
Advent is the Christian liturgical season preceding Christmas. The linguistic origin of the word Advent is from the Latin word Adventus, meaning “coming.” The season acts as a time to prepare for the coming of Jesus, a period of solemn, yet joyous betterment of the self and a time to reflect on the gifts and blessings of the year.
“O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to Thee
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it
Seal it for Thy courts above.”
While the song is innately Christian, I think the messages of the song are something that we can all consider. None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes, but we can learn and grow from them. Some of us hate the Christmas season. Some people hate spending time with their family. Some simply have problems being happy through no fault of their own. This song is telling you to examine your life and understand what needs to change. Whether Christmas is a Christian holiday, a time for Hallmark movies, a time to finally see your family, or the worst day of the year; in this Advent season, Sufjan is telling us to examine our faults and examine our blessings, understand our imperfections, and be better to our fellow man.
Alex is a law student at Wake Forest University. He tweets about memes, the NBA, music, Gritty, and occasionally will attempt to be funny on his own. Follow him/contact him here.