Remember when the unofficial start to the Christmas season waited until after Thanksgiving? No more. Now retail stores have Santa displays on the endcaps and “Frosty the Snowman” over the loudspeaker before kids can finish saying, “Trick or Treat!”

Into this fast-paced frenzy of commercial Christmas chaos, a group of Hope students, helmed by Bruce Benedict, the college’s chaplain of worship and arts, inserted something different: an album of new and re-tuned sacred music meant to help the church see the Incarnation of Jesus Christ in fresh new ways.

Hope College Worship released “A Swell of Grace” in November 2019.

Released on November 21, 2019, A Swell of Grace is something of a rarity, even during a season that, more than any other holiday, is marked by the soundscape of familiar music — sacred hymns and popular jingles alike. While popular artists are mostly releasing albums that put their own spin on well-known Christmas tunes, Benedict wanted to give the students the experience of writing music from scratch.

The result is an EP of what Benedict describes as “original advent and Christmas songs that explore the narrative and emotional depths of the coming of Christ.” It aims to deal honestly, interestingly and deeply with the biblical account of Jesus’ birth.

Take, for example, the first of the album’s eight tracks, “The Holy of Holies” by senior Anna Kate Peterson.

“She’s one of my strongest songwriters,” Benedict said. “Her song was a text we had to wrestle with, because she was making some theological connections, talking about Mary’s womb as the Holy of Holies.”

Here are lyrics from verses two and three of Peterson’s song:

The Lord our God, entered our mess,
In the purity of this girl, took on flesh,
Virgin’s womb, the Spirit’s room,
The Holy of Holies

The brightest star, burned the way
To the cross where blood was love on display,
The old has passed, the new has come
The veil has torn

In another song, “Dispossessed and Peaceful,” Michael Stone ’18 writes:

Persecuted in the dark
The Christmas child on earth abides
Incarnated word of God
Carried town to town to hide
Joseph and the road again
Mary clutching child’s weak head
Holy God, where were we then?
Immigrants in search of rest

The lyrics that portray the Holy Family as immigrants touch a contemporary political nerve, and they pick up on a theme that Benedict explored in “Refugee King,” which he cowrote with Liz Vice and others at a 2018 songwriting retreat. (Vice released “Refugee King” as a single earlier this year.) Benedict’s experience at the retreat inspired him to work on this Christmas EP with his students.

In “Every Knee Shall Bow,” juniors Olivia Abdou and Cecilia O’Brien write:

The one on the throne was born without a home
Despised and rejected and forced to roam
In a stable filled with hay, our Savior born that day
Mary and Joseph in awe at his name

And in the album’s title track, “Swell of Grace,” Sarah Sims ’19 delivers a meaningful spoken word meditation both on Mary’s pregnancy and on our Advent anticipation that opens:

This quiet carrying
This gestation of grace
This swelling of a song
We are waiting
For the barren to bear fruit
For the bleak to reap hope

Benedict isn’t surprised that these students delivered songs of theological depth, biblical insight and creativity.

“What’s surprising to me is that I’ve not found more colleges creating interesting sacred music, because this is such a generative time in people’s lives,” he said. “It seems like there’d be a lot of college students — whether at Christian schools or not —being generative and creating interesting worship music, but I’ve just not found that. So part of this is trying to put examples out there for other colleges.”

It’s also an education and hands-on experience for students, a way for Benedict to pull back the curtain on the process of writing and recording music. “I wanted students to have the experience of creating something themselves from scratch. I think it’s an important skill to cultivate in this world of largely contemporary worship music,” he said.

This Christmas album isn’t the first time Benedict has worked with students to record original works. “The first one we did was in Lent, and that was mostly retuned hymns,” Benedict said. “Every year I try to do one. Typically it’s based on the sermon series in Chapel.”

In addition to the Lent album (Thy Love Unfailing), Hope students have also recorded albums inspired by Philippians 2:5–11 (The Christ Hymn) the Beatitudes (The Beatitudes), the Lord’s Prayer (Songs of Prayer) and the Psalms (Psalms).

“I’m really just trying to steward and shepherd the resources Hope has to do these kinds of creative projects,” he said.

Additionally, “Campus Ministries has been doing a live worship record for 20 years,” Benedict said. “Over Christmas break we’ll actually release on Bandcamp every record we’ve ever done. You’ll be able to listen to every live worship record we’ve done back to the early Dwight Beale days.” (Beale was Hope’s chaplain of worship from 1998 to 2005.) You can find the albums here as soon as they’re available.

Making music is just one part of what Benedict does in his role as worship chaplain. His primary task is to, in his words, “curate, cultivate, lead and empower” the worship services at Chapel and The Gathering. He oversees the worship and tech teams, works with chaplains and guest preachers and musicians, coordinates about 30 volunteer students for each service, and partners with the Gospel Choir, Sacred Dance and other groups with gifts to offer the Hope community.

Bruce Benedict, Chaplain of Worship and Arts

“I coordinate how the liturgical arts can support worship at Hope,” he summarized. “Most people think about what I do purely in terms of music, but I try to broaden that out for students. Music is part of it, but there’s text and visuals and movement. You have a space you occupy, so how does your worship interact with that space?”

Outside the college, Benedict directs Cardiphonia, a liturgical arts collective of dozens of musical and visual artists, mostly connected to local churches. “We release church music compilations around various biblical and spiritual themes. We did one this summer on Psalm 119, and we invited 22 artists from all over the world to write music for that.”

He’s also part of Bellwether Arts, a project from Cardiphonia that focuses on the church calendar. In partnership with Hope’s Campus Ministries, Bellwether just released a devotional for the final week of Advent based on the “O” Antiphons, an ancient set of prayers that explore images of Christ in the Old Testament. The “O” Antiphons form the basis of the familiar Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” (Download the devotional here.)

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