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By Phillip Ganir, SJ

As Advent continues, perhaps these music selections might help you enter the season. Three are explicitly sacred, and two are secular songs where I make spiritual connections.

1. “Ave Maria” by Franz Biebl (Performed by VOCES8)

This is a favorite. And it’s the type of music I’d love at my funeral. The UK group VOCES8 produces a particularly exquisite (and shorter) rendition, whose musical execution evokes the solemnity of Christmas and the graced encounter between Mary and the Angel Gabriel.

It’s great for reflection, especially if you want to deepen your reading of Luke 1: 26-38, a biblical standard for this time. The concluding “Amen” sequence, with its growing and surprising key changes, make for a satisfying and inspiring listening experience.

VOCES8 sings one verse of the Angelus. If you want all three verses, I recommend Chanticleer’s rendition:

2. “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” by Sir James MacMillan (Percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie)

If you’re looking for something a bit more musically demanding, consider “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” by the internationally acclaimed Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan. MacMillan quotes the 13th-century chant which many of us sing during Advent (at 23:32), but don’t think of calm, dulcet tones. Quite the opposite, really. And that’s the point.

Characteristic to much of MacMillan’s style are clamorous, dramatic and tense sounds which express the mystery of the Incarnation — that Christ breaks through the world’s chaos in order to save us — signified by the famous “heartbeat” motif at 24:52. MacMillan’s interpretation of the apocalyptic vision in Luke 21: 25-28, as well as the church’s liturgical seasons, are prominent features of this percussion concerto.

Many performances are available online, but I recommend this rendition by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester (Berlin) and the Scottish percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, a close collaborator of MacMillan’s, and a profoundly deaf musician who, without a hearing aid, has built a remarkable career of “listening” through resonances and sensations in her body.

3. “Speigel im Speigel” by Arvo Pärt (Performed by Leonhard Roczek and Herbert Schuch)

For something more relaxing, here’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” (German for “Mirror in Mirror”) by the Estonian Orthodox composer Arvo Pärt, one of the most performed living musicians today — a distinction that oscillates between Pärt and John Williams of “Star Wars” fame.

If you don’t know Pärt by name, you might recognize his tintinnabula — his Latinized term for “bell ringing” for which he has gained critical and popular acclaim. Film, TV and theatre directors have incorporated this particular tintinnabuli composition into their art — including “The Simpsons” who pay homage to Pärt in its 25th season.

If you discern spiritual value in the piece, you are hearing Pärt’s faith expressed musically after a direct experience of Christ in 1976, which marked the end of a long spell of spiritual dryness and desolation.

The steady quality of Spiegel can regulate breathing for relaxation or meditation. And its open sonorities are ideal images for the ongoing Advent challenge to make “space” for Jesus as Christmas approaches.

4. “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus (Cover by Boyce Avenue)

Isaiah’s call to the Lord’s mountain is the first biblical image the church read this year as Advent began: “Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths” (Is 2:3). Mountains are popular metaphors in scripture, referenced at least 500 times.

While climbing mountains might inspire pleasure or adventure, they can represent burdens or personal struggle. So, if work is busier this time of year, or if life is an uphill battle right now, when you “climb” your own “mountain,” take heart. Remember that Christ has already conquered fear and death, and know you’re not alone.

Miley Cyrus is not a standard on my playlist, but when she released this in 2009, I really appreciated the song, not to mention the many covers which she inspired — like this acoustic version by Boyce Avenue:

5. “Flying” by the Peter Moon Band (Cover by Josh Tatofi)

For many, Advent is synonymous with travel. And such travel will bring its share of joy and stress.

Josh Tatofi and his ensemble put a fresh spin on “Flying,” a Hawaiian classic written and originally performed by the Peter Moon Band. There’s no explicit connection to Advent, but since it’s a song about traveling and creating good memories, I’ve come to associate it with the season.

Having been raised in Honolulu, the idea of leaving the islands for school or work is a common part of island life. Cost of living make it difficult for families to live together, and I know in my family we’ve had to be creative in sustaining connections overseas.

Given my vocation as a Jesuit priest, where the mission often asks us to sacrifice holiday family time, sometimes that feeling of distance is more intense. So, memories — as Tatofi sings — are part of what sustain me during this season.

And while his music lures me into a warm and familiar place, it’s also a reminder not to be sentimental — that the relationships I have are also gifts which I cherish and treasure (and hence cultivate and nurture) during this time of reunion and celebration. Thank goodness for Skype and FaceTime!


Phillip Ganir, SJPhillip Ganir, SJ, is a USA West Province Jesuit priest from Honolulu, Hawaii. He is currently editing his Ph.D. dissertation in Catechetics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he also works as a teaching fellow in the School of Music, Drama, and Art.

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