Songs for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany

The songs selected here are on the working list of a supplement scheduled for release in the year 2000.


As the Deer

"As the Deer" was composed in 1984 by Martin J. Nystrom, a songwriter who was born in 1956 in Seattle, Washington, to a mother who grew up in the Christian Reformed Church; his father was brought up in the Evangelical Covenant Church. After graduating from Oral Roberts University with a degree in music education, Nystrom worked as a music director for the New York branch of Christ for the Nations. More recently he has served as a song development manager for Integrity Music, for whom he has written more than seventy songs. Nystrom is featured as worship leader on five Integrity "Hosanna" tapes. He also gives presentations at numerous conferences throughout the world.

Some years ago I referred to "As the Deer" as "a decent praise song with a respectable tune in its own right." But I also complained that this song "turns the lament of Psalm 42 into a simple but shallow chorus of praise" (Reformed Worship 20, June 1991, p. 35). That criticism was largely based on the text of the original second and third stanzas. These stanzas ignored the dramatic movement from despair to hope that characterizes Psalm 42. However, "As the Deer" quickly gained popularity and has been listed on the top twenty-five and even the top ten of the Christian "hit parade" of this decade.

But, as has happened to many hymns in the history of Christianity, textual changes are made (often by hymnal editors) to remove archaic language, to improve syntax or meaning, and to join or replace older stanzas with new stanzas. The latter happened to "As the Deer" in both the 1996 Covenant Hymnal (Evangelical Covenant Church) and in the 1996 Voices United (United Church of Canada). Stanzas 2-3 are totally new in each of these hymnals. These changes capture more of the important features of Psalm 42, to which John Stek refers in his comments on this psalm in The NIV Study Bible.

Though the Revised Common Lectionary primarily refers to Psalm 42 (and 43) as one of the multiple biblical texts for the Easter Vigil, other, older traditions assign Psalm 42 to the seasons of Advent and/or Lent. The yearning or longing and the hope of this psalm are well-expressed in these new versions of "As the Deer."

A pianistic accompaniment is found on page 24; the SATB setting on this page allows another performance option for the refrain.

The new stanzas based on Psalm 42 (see box) were prepared by Lydia Pederson, organist and choir director at Royal York United Church in Etobicoke, Ontario, and a member of the Hymn and Worship Resource Committee that prepared Voices United (1997).

Yet another revised text as found in the recent Covenant Hymnal reads as follows:

2 Day by day all your love surrounds me,
and by night you're a song within.
You alone lift my spirit higher,
and my soul finds hope in you. Refrain

3 When my soul faints and fears distress me,
I remember your faithfidness.
Hear my prayer, Lord, renew my spirit
so much more than anything! Refrain

All Earth Is Waiting/Toda la Tierra

"Toda la Tierra" is an Advent hymn from the culturally distinctive and semi-autonomous Catalunya region of northeastern Spain (the area around Barcelona). Its original Catalonian text (which is akin to Spanish) and the tune were composed by a modern Spanish Roman Catholic priest and prolific church musician, Alberto Vinas Taule. Various Spanish and English translations helped propel this hymn across the Atlantic to North American Christians. The version printed here comes from the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal, though an alternate translation by Madeleine Forell Marshall ("All Earth Is Hopeful") is also gaining popularity through hymnals such as the Lutheran With One Voice.

The text quotes from Isaiah 7:14 and 40:3-5 in its announcement of "liberty, justice, and truth" that accompany the coming of the Messiah, who was once born in "lowly stable," but is now alive in Christians everywhere. The simple tune, in rounded bar form (AA'BA), is intended for unison singing.

Your congregation or youth choir can sing "All Earth Is Waiting" during any Sunday in Advent. Light keyboard accompaniment is appropriate; for a more Spanish flavor, use guitars and castanets (or wood blocks).

3 Mountains and valleys will have to be made plain;
open new highways, new highways for the Lord.
He is now coming closer, so come all and see,
and open the doorways as wide as wide can be.

4 In lowly stable the Promised One appeared,
yet, feel his presence throughout the earth today,
for he lives in all Christians and is with us now;
again, with his coming he brings us liberty.

3 Montes y valles habrd que preparar;
nuevos caminos tenemos que trazar.
El estd ya muy cerca, venidlo_a_encontrar,
y todas las pueitas abrid de par en par.

4 En una cueva Jesus aparecio,
pero_en el mundo estd presents hoy.
Vive_en nuestros hermanos, con ellos esta;
y vuelve de nuevo a dornos libertad.


Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow

This African-American spiritual was collected on the islands offshore from South Carolina and Georgia and first published in Slave Songs of the United States, compiled by William F. Allen, et al (1867). Some scholars think it originated as a Black adaptation of a British folksong, while others point to a Welsh carol as a possible source. Whatever its origin, this spiritual gained greater exposure when choirs from Black universities such as Fisk, Hampton, and Tuskegee sang it on their tours in eastern U.S.A. and Europe, and when it was included in the Johnson brothers' Second Book of Negro Spirituals (1926). The version printed on this page is from the Roman Catholic African-American hymnal Lead Me, Guide Me: it is also found in The Presbyterian Hymnal.

As in so much African music, this spiritual uses a "call and response" structure in performance: a solo voice begins, but it is soon followed by the entire group singing in harmony, "Rise up, shepherd, and follow!" This litany-type pattern is further enriched by the addition of a refrain, which may also be sung in harmony.

A number of Christmas folksongs expand on the few details which Matthew and Luke convey in their gospel accounts of the birth of Christ. Thus it is not uncommon to encounter the shepherds and the wise men together at the manger (modern Christmas card illustrations often convey such naivete or poetic license as well). This African-American spiritual has similar folk roots, and though its text refers primarily to Luke 2:8-15, it conflates the star of the wise men's journey (Matt. 2:1-12) with the journey of the shepherds to Bethlehem.

Use this spiritual on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, or as part of your Lessons and Carols Festival. The arrangement in the New Oxford Book of Carols offers sections of this spiritual in two- and three-part harmony. Henry Simon's familiar A Treasury of Christmas Carols features a fine setting for solo and unison voices with a delightful piano accompaniment by Rudolph Fellner. A more elaborate SATB setting by Jack Schrader (Hope) is among the many available choral octavos.


Holy, Holy, Holy Is the Lord of Hosts

Nolene Prince is an important composer and seminar leader in the Praise & Worship tradition, compiling chorus books such as the Australian Resource Song Book (1990). Born in Melbourne, Australia, she became a Christian in 1959 at a Billy Graham crusade. In 1965 she completed her Bachelor of Music degree at Melbourne University, then sang professionally for some time in concerts and on Australian radio and TV broadcasts. Since 1970 she has devoted her music entirely to Christian ministry and—with her husband, Dennis—to church planting.

In her own words, here is the story behind "Holy Is the Lord of Hosts:"

In April 1975, in Adelaide, South Australia, before a congregation of six or seven hundred people, evangelist Dick Mills called me down from the choir. "When you were up there leading," Dick said, "the Lord spoke to me by a word of knowledge, indicating that he is going to give you an original song in the night, a song that will be singable by masses of people and easily trans-lated into other languages."

The following night as I went to bed, I began reading Isaiah 6 and pictured the scene Isaiah was describing: the throne, its glory, and the worshiping seraphim. I could hear in my mind something of the melody they were singing, so I picked up some manuscript paper and wrote it down. A few minutes later my husband, Dennis, came in. As we shared the song together, we were amazed to discover that he had just been meditating on the same verses, impressed by their suitability for a chorus!

Initially we sang the chorus in several churches. Months later I sent it, along with others, to David and Dale Garratt of "Scripture in Song" in New Zealand, saying nothing of its origin. A year or so later David Garratt telephoned regarding copyright details. He remarked that "Holy Is the Lord of Hosts" had been popular in their music ministry around the world. Excitedly I told him the story of its origin. David then told me how, at the Olympic Games in Montreal, the chorus was sung in the many languages of the athletes and visitors. Others have reported that it has been translated into French, German, and Spanish. Isn't God wonderful! His ways are so far above our ways.

You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd

The church season between the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6) and Ash Wednesday (which signals the beginning of Lent; February 17 in 1999) is often used to focus on Christ's teaching and miracles. A quick glance at the thought-provoking array of Christological metaphors in Sylvia Dunstan's hymn text "You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd," will confirm the appropriateness of the title she gave to this hymn: "Christus Paradox." Struck by the paradoxes in everyday life and contemplating the mysteries of Christ (see Paul's letter to the Ephesians and the Colossians), she wrote the text in 1984 "after a bad day in the jail" where she worked as a prison chaplain.

Following the example of Psalms 103-106,1 typically like to frame some traditional hymns with an "Alleluia" chorus, to create what the British theologian John Stott called "Alleluia sandwiches." But when using "Christus Paradox," I'd want to formulate a "Sanctus sandwich" to surround Dunstan's text with the beginning of the ancient "Sanctus" text: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory" (Isaiah 6:3). This would accentuate the awesomeness of the paradoxical metaphors that Dunstan catalogs in her text.

My "Sanctus sandwich" would look like this: sing Prince's "Holy, Holy, Holy" once at the outset, probably with piano accompaniment. Then use a D7 chord as a pivot chord on the organ, followed by singing Dunstan's text to Purcell's WESTMINSTER ABBEY tune. At the conclusion of the hymn, sound a G7 chord on the piano and use it (perhaps also with the organ) to accompany once more the "Holy, Holy, Holy" to conclude this medley. A more elaborate "triple-decker sandwich" could be made by interpolating the "Holy, Holy, Holy" also between the hymn stanzas.

Sylvia G. Dunstan (1955-1993) was a minister in the United Church of Canada, serving as minister of Malvern Emmanuel United Church in Scarborough, Ontario, before becoming a prison chaplain in Ontario. As editor of Gathering, a denominational worship publication, she wrote numerous articles on liturgy and worship. Her presentation at the 1990 conference of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada introduced others to her work as a hymn writer and led to the publication In Search of Hope and Grace (G.I.A.), a collection of forty hymn texts. Following her untimely death in the summer of 1993, seventeen new and unpublished hymns were gathered and presented in the collection Where the Promise Shines (also published by G.I.A.).



Note: Reformed Worship regrets that we were not able to include the two new texts in the music; permission was not only denied; both the Covenant Hymnal and Voices United have now been requested to change their next hymnal printings back to the original text! However, the issue seems to be the mixing of two sets of text. Lydia Peder-son has therefore written a completely new text based on Psalm 42 for Voices United, and she kindly gave us permission to include it here:

As a deer seeks flowing waters,
weary from the chase,
so my soul, O God, is thirsting
to behold your face.


You command my steadfast love,
in you my soul may quiet be;
you, my rock, my help, my refuge,
set my spirit free.

Day and night I cry, my heart is breaking,
tears my only food;
while my enemies jeer and taunt me, saying,
"Where is now your God." Refrain

Why am I so sad, so troubled, why must
suffering be so long?
I will hope in you, my God and savior,
praise you with a song. Refrain

Bert Polman was a hymnologist, professor and chair of the music department at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He passed away in July 2013. 

Reformed Worship 49 © September 1998, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.