“I was aware that people like something to do when lighting the Advent candles”, says writer-composer Clare Stainsby, “but that ‘The holly and the ivy’ had become a bit tired.” Others have agreed with Clare. The compilers of Singing the Faith have replaced ‘The holly and the ivy’ with three alternative hymns to accompany the candle-lighting ceremony.
The lighting of candles to mark the passing Sundays of Advent is a feature of many church services, especially where children are present. For many years, the sequence of verses in ‘The holly and the ivy’ has offered a way of recalling key witnesses to God’s preparations for the incarnation, each commemorated in a single candle flame – the people of God, the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, John the Baptist and Jesus’ mother, Mary.
Singing the Faith’s three alternative candle hymns (four if you count Graham Kendrick’s attractive ‘Like a candle flame’, StF 176) each offers a slightly different take on the traditional sequence of Advent memories, set to tunes of different mood and style.
Clare set out to write a hymn that would be simple and memorable. Each verse of ‘Light a candle in a darkened place’ (StF 174) ends with a celebratory cry, ‘So let it burn’. Clare wanted to underline the idea that “this message we’re sharing in Advent burns through everything we do”. She speaks of “the flame of Christ that burns on to this day – what we’re symbolising in the candle goes on and on”.
In contrast to Clare’s self-penned melody, bright but lyrical, Mark Earey found in the more traditional ‘Angel Voices’ just the right tune to inspire his ‘Advent candles tell their story’ (StF 165). Though still following the familiar sequence of Advent themes, Mark says he wanted to emphasise the eschatological message that runs through the pre-Christmas season, reminding us of a world that will find final fulfilment in the will of God. “The longing for the day of glory is there every week in Advent”, Mark argues. He writes in verse 1: “’Come, Lord, soon,’ we say. Pain and sorrow, tears and sadness changed for gladness on that day” – an idea underpinned in the simple liturgy that Mark has written to accompany the lighting ceremony and verses of his hymn.
Last, but not least, John Bell’s ‘Christmas is coming!’ (StF 166) is the chirpy third option for those who want to sing along with the lighting of the Advent candles. Drawn from the Iona Community collection, Innkeepers and Light Sleepers, John describes this simply as ‘a teaching hymn’ and gives brief notes about how it might be sung. Here, the idea of Christian community moves centre stage – Christ’s approach is something that ‘the Church is glad to sing’.
In the final verse and chorus, for Christmas Day, we get to sing a corporate affirmation, ‘Christ is among us’, and we return to the ongoing Christian vision that Clare Stainsby underlined: ‘The candles in the ring remind us that our Saviour will light up everything’.