Advent will officially begin this Sunday, but the perennial holiday rush has already begun. And by holiday rush I mean the rush to celebrate Christmas before the first day of Advent arrives. Nowhere is this more evident than the music resounding from speakers everywhere in our world–from stores to our workplace to our own laptops. I’m holding back the Christmas celebration because Christians are called to enter into a season of waiting, longing, and expectation for the coming of Christ. But for the past few years, I’ve lamented that there’s not a sufficient Advent counterpart to Christmas carols.
And then it occurred to me that the new Mumford and Sons album “Babel” expresses several of the same themes that are addressed to Christians in Advent. Bing Crosby and the Rat Pack crowd won’t place me in touch with the groaning of all creation for the return of Christ. But the urgency in Marcus Mumford’s guitar, voice, and lyrics put me in just the right place to enter the Advent season.
The first Sunday of Advent always begins like a shotgun blast. Here are the words of Jesus we’ll read this Sunday from Luke 21: “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Welcome to Advent, eh?
Eleven seconds after a raucous clash of banjo and acoustic guitar, “Babel” slams you against the wall, too: “Cause I know that time has numbered my days/ And I’ll go along with everything you say/ But I’ll ride home laughing, look at me now / The walls of my town, they come crumbling down.” In the midst of this desperation comes the demanding cry: “So come down from your mountain and stand where we’ve been, You know our breath is weak and our bodies thin.” That’s the same sound of a soul longing for the Incarnation of God in the midst of chaos.
In “Ghosts That We Knew” the plea for hope rises up from a long night of dreaded darkness: “So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light/ ‘Cause oh that gave me such a fright/
But I will hold as long as you like/ Just promise me we’ll be alright.” That’s the very need that prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah address when Israel suffers the long night of exile and captivity in Babylon. In the middle of those broken years, Isaiah speaks hope to Israel in her darkness with these words: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus…They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come and save you.”
When Israel’s greatest prophet, John the Baptist, cries “make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God,” he calls for repentance before the coming of the Lord. Marcus Mumford’s “Holland Road” is reminiscent of John the Baptist’s highway when Mumford rings out this confession of repentance and plea for salvation: “But I’ll still believe though there’s cracks you’ll see/ When I’m on my knees I’ll still believe/ And when I’ve hit the ground, neither lost nor found/ If you’ll believe in me I’ll still believe.”
Perhaps the best Advent anthem on “Babel” is “I Will Wait.” Both the first and second comings of Christ have been characterized by an agonizing wait. Waiting is native to Advent. Perhaps this is why Americans largely ignore Advent. But the wise know that waiting is integral to the human experience and the restoration of the soul. The Advent themes of brokenness, waiting, and hope are present in this opening lyric: “Well I came home/ Like a stone/ And I fell heavy into your arms/ These days of dust/ Which we’ve known/ Will blow away with this new sun.” Inspiration to pray with a patient heart amid a troubling delay comes in the bridge to the chorus: “But I’ll kneel down wait for now/ And I’ll kneel down/ Know my ground/ And I will wait I will wait for you.” And then the harvest of waiting finally comes with the sound of shimmering joy, signalled by the Mumford’s signature brass section: “Raise my hands/ Paint my spirit gold/ And bow my head/ Keep my heart slow.”
I know that some of these meanings and connections aren’t intended by the Mumfords, but any good poet knows that dimensions of meanings are infused in a lyric of their own creation that he can’t see. That’s why poets speak humbly about the Muses. They’re trustees of a message they’ve heard, an echo from another place deposited in their souls.
But for those of us who believe the Holy Spirit is the Person breathing living words into the poet’s voice, it’s no surprise that we’ll find connections between the grand story of how God became Man and the songs we hear. There’s always space for listeners to discover textures of meaning that may not have been originally intended by a writer.
That’s why it’s not a far stretch to adopt the Mumford’s anthems into our Advent catalogue. Given the superficial sounds occupying the air everywhere else this season, I’ll take the songs from a “hopeless wanderer” any December day. It’s a great way to prepare for the day when we celebrate that the Word became Flesh to dwell with us and end our restless wandering.