Reviewed by Luke Hyder
Advent can be a season of awkward juxtapositions. We begin a new church year just as the calendar year is coming to a close. We celebrate the coming of the Light of the World just as the nights have become their darkest. We worship in longing and hopeful preparation for One who has already come, and yet who is still to come.
Finding balance between the conflicting themes of Advent can be a difficult task, especially when planning worship services and choosing songs for our congregations to sing. Steve Thorngate, in his newly released project of songs for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, “After the Longest Night,” has struck that balance beautifully, giving the church a collection of songs, hymns and canticles that can be sung throughout this season and across many types of churches.
The album and accompanying digital songbook provide an attractive and accessible mix of original songs, arrangements of classic hymns and spirituals, and new adaptations of the familiar scriptural canticles of the season. The musical glue holding it together is an acoustic, Americana-infused musical palate that would be at home in any playlist that includes beloved holiday releases from Over the Rhine, Alison Krauss or The Civil Wars. The leadsheets (melody line and lyrics, with chord symbols) that come in the digital songbook are cleanly laid out and easy to follow, allowing the songs to be quickly learned by any skilled church musician, guitar player or chord-following pianist.
Thorngate’s arrangements of the classic hymns “Creator of the Stars of Night” and “What Child Is This?” are lovely and stylistically flexible. His takes on two traditional spirituals, “Bright Morning Stars” and “Let the Light of Your Lighthouse Shine on Me” (both of which were new to me), will lift the hearts and voices of any congregation that loves to sing “Go Tell it On the Mountain” or “Rise Up Shepherds.” And whether your context is familiar or unfamiliar with the liturgical tradition of singing the canticles of Luke’s Gospel, Thorngate’s fresh settings, “Blessed be the Holy One of Israel” (Zechariah’s song), “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Mary’s song) and “You Send Your Servant Forth in Peace” (Simeon’s song) would make them come alive for traditional or contemporary worship gatherings.
What really stood out to me from this collection, however, were Thorngate’s original songs. From the Taizé-like Advent prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come,” to the rollicking celebration, “Jesus Is Our Light,” he captures meaningful theological ideas in accessible and memorable ways. “The Night Is Long (but Not for Long)” uses the title’s lyrical hook to anchor verses that acknowledge the darkness in our world while steadfastly affirming the breaking dawn of hope Jesus brings. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard (or sung) a congregational song that celebrates the incarnation in as stark and earthy a manner as “God Is a Body.” These are songs that express seasonally-appropriate themes from eye-opening angles through memorable lyrics and singable, folk-style melodies.
“After the Longest Night” can help many of our churches sing both old and new songs in a fresh way this Advent, worshipping our Savior and affirming the hope that “the night is long, but not for long.”
LUKE HYDER lives with his wife and two daughters in Everett, Washington, where he is the pastor of Cascade View Presbyterian Church. He is also a singer-songwriter and composer, with two congregational songs published in “Psalms for All Seasons”and has led worship at churches, retreats and conferences for over 20 years.